More people’s mail-in ballots could be rejected in the March primary because of Texas' new ID matching requirement, local election officials say.
The requirement is part of Texas’ new voting law, Senate Bill 1. A provision of the law requires that the ID number on the application for a vote-by-mail ballot, as well as the ballot itself, match the ID number a voter used to register to vote.
James Slattery, senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he hopes the requirements don't lead to mass rejections when voters start returning their mail-in ballots later this month, but there are serious concerns.
"Everything about this election so far has suggested that everything that can go wrong will indeed go wrong," he said.
Problems with vote-by-mail applications
So far, thousands of voters have had their vote-by-mail applications flagged for rejection because the ID number on their application didn't match what's on their voter registration. The number — either their driver's license or Social Security number — must be the same number they put down on their registration.
Voting rights advocates have pointed out that many voters don't remember which ID they used to register, so they’re guessing wrong and running into issues.
According to the Texas secretary of state, the new statewide ballot tracker website shows about 2,800 ballot applications have been rejected so far— but that's just one snapshot. Harris County alone has rejected more than 5,000 applications as of Jan. 31. More than 1,700 of those rejections were due to ID issues, according to the Harris County election administrator’s office.
Dana DeBeauvoir, who just retired from her position as the Travis County clerk, said she's concerned the new rules tripping voters applying for a mail-in-ballot will also confuse voters as they send those ballots back.
New rules for carrier envelopes
SB 1 requires that the ID voters use on the carrier envelope for their ballot matches what the number they used on their voter registration.
"The new ID requirement for vote by mail is a round-trip ticket," DeBeauvoir said. "And I think voters haven't heard that second step yet, so I will hope they pay attention to that."
Chris Davis, the election administrator in Williamson County, said he's also concerned voters will be caught off-guard by these new rules.
"All of us — all of us county election officials — are unfortunately anticipating a higher number of mail-ballot rejections,” he said. “And the window to fix that is much, much narrower.”
Time constraints for fixing mail-in ballot issues
Slattery said election officials and voters face a time crunch if they identify issues with returned mail-in ballots.
If the problem is caught early, Slattery said, election officials can send the ballot back to be fixed and the voter can mail it in again.
However, a lot of issues with vote-by-mail ballots are identified pretty late in the game. It can take a while for the actual ballot to get mailed to the voter. People also like to take their time voting, so they return it pretty close to the deadline.
Slattery said election officials will more likely resort to another process to remedy rejected ballots.
"Thee county may — but is not required to — contact the voter and say, ‘You can either cancel your mail ballot and vote in person or come to the clerk's office in person within six days of the election to fix the problem," he said.
A lot could go wrong here, too, Slattery said, especially if someone is out of town, which is a big share of people voting by mail.
Texas' vote-by-mail program is limited to people who are out of town, disabled, in jail or over 65.
Isabel Longoria, elections administrator in Harris County, said some voters are going to have a hard time getting these issues sorted out if they are not in the county. And ultimately, she said, she's worried this will drive up the ballot rejection rate.
"Mail ballots are people's votes," she said. "And so I am very concerned — not just with the complexity of the process, but how that added complexity is going to increase the number of mail ballots that we have to reject."
Longoria said she's also worried that all these new hurdles will make processing and reporting votes a longer process.
"The Democratic and Republican bipartisan early vote ballot board, which reviews all of these mail ballots, they now have to go in and do so much more research," she said, "which is going to delay — we think — how quickly these mail ballots are processed."
Voters can prevent issues before they send in ballots
Unlike with vote-by-mail applications, there isn't a portal where voters can go to fix an issue remotely with their returned ballots. Slattery said state lawmakers explicitly prohibited that in the new voting law.
But there are things voters can do to make sure they don't run afoul of these new rules in the first place, election officials said.
Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, said voters who are already registered to vote can update their registration — even after the registration deadline — to make sure it includes all the IDs they use.
"You are not changing anything by adding information to your voter registration record; you are just making it more complete," he said. "So that doesn't start the clock over in terms of whether or not you were registered by the deadline for the March primary."
Taylor said the Texas secretary of state's office is recommending that voters provide both their Social and driver's license on their application and return ballots, just in case. And, he said, his office is advising local election officials to approve a vote-by-mail application if a voter has never been issued either a Social Security number or driver's license.
Taylor said state election officials do not want to see vote-by-mail ballots get rejected.
"The secretary's stated open position is that we hope that number is zero," he said. "Obviously, we don't want anyone who is eligible to vote by mail to have their ballot-by-mail application rejected or to have their ballot rejected."
Ultimately, Longoria said, there is no way this won't affect at least some eligible voters. She said she's working as hard as she can to inform voters to include all the information they can on their mail-in ballots and applications. Voting groups and local election officials in Texas are also advising voters casting mail ballots to get them completed and sent back as early as possible.
"This is not something I can outwork," Longoria said. "No matter how many hours I stay up in the day, no matter how many team members we get here, no matter how many people we put on the phones to help voters. At the end of the day, this hurts voters."
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