Central Texas counties threw out more than 1,000 mail-in ballots in the March primary, the first election since the implementation of a new GOP voting law known as Senate Bill 1.
The rejected ballots were among almost 23,000 mail-in votes that were uncounted in the 187 largest Texas counties under voting rules that were part of a broad campaign by Republicans to reshape American elections, according to an analysis published Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Roughly 13% of mail ballots in the March 1 primary were discarded and uncounted, with counties big and small, red and blue reporting trouble navigating SB 1’s new rules — although the rejection rate was higher in counties that lean Democratic (15.1%) than Republican (9.1%), the AP reported.
The AP counted 22,898 rejected ballots across Texas by contacting all 254 counties and obtaining final vote reconciliation reports. Some smaller counties did not provide data or respond to requests, but the 187 counties that provided full numbers to AP accounted for 85% of the 3 million people who voted in the primary.
In the Austin-area counties, the overwhelming majority of the rejections were due to the law’s stricter ID requirement, which has caused confusion for voters since counties opened applications for absentee ballots earlier this year.
“It’s typical to see ballots rejected because they’re received after a statutory deadline — and we still had many ballots that were rejected for that reason — but the more prevalent cause in this case was ballots rejected for lack of the proper ID number, or ID issues,” said Chris Davis, elections administrator for Williamson County.
“It led to much higher numbers than we’ve ever seen, in terms of rejected ballots,” he said.
Mail-in ballot rejection rates in the primary election ranged from 7% to 11% in Austin-area counties, with more than 1,500 votes tossed out across Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties.
Those rates far exceed previous elections. In the 2018 primary, the rejection rate for mail-in ballots in Travis County was about 2%.
Dan and Joyce Wilson, 86-year-old residents of a senior living home in Austin, say they will never try to vote by mail again after a confusing and frustrating experience in the March 1 primary.
The Wilsons were informed Feb. 24 that their absentee ballots were rejected because they had not listed their driver’s license numbers or last four digits of their Social Security numbers on their ballot envelopes as required by SB 1.
Confusion mounted when the Wilsons tried to fix the problem online. They tried to follow the instructions to “cure” their ballots, but it took the help of a friend and volunteer to navigate the process. On election day, they called the Travis County elections office to make sure their ballots were fixed but were advised to vote in person to be certain.
The Wilsons cast provisional ballots that were later rejected because officials said they had already voted. They believe that means their mail-in ballots were counted, but they’re not sure.
The couple said the 2020 election process felt more efficient, and Joyce Wilson said it felt like someone was trying to discourage them from voting this time.
Next time, Dan Wilson said, they will go to the polls even if voting in-person isn’t easy for them.
“We’re both 86 years old. This is not a big deal for a younger person, but it gets to be an effort for us,” he said.
Last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed SB 1, making sweeping changes to the state’s voting system, including banning drive-thru and overnight voting and empowering partisan poll watchers. The legislation requires voting assistants, who help Texans with language or physical need cast their ballots, to fill out a document listing their name, address and relationship to the voter. Assistants also have to sign an oath, under penalty of perjury, confirming that the voter is eligible for help due to a physical disability or being unable to read the ballot language.
Under the new law, Texans who vote by mail have to include their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the flap of the envelope containing their ballot. That number has to match the number they previously provided on their application to vote by mail.
The trouble is that voters are not required to provide both a driver’s license and Social Security number when they register to vote, so the state does not have both ID numbers on file for every voter in the state. If an individual registers to vote using one form of ID and then applies for a mail-in ballot using the other number, their application would be rejected.
Republicans touted the law as essential to ensuring the integrity of elections, despite the lack of widespread evidence of voter fraud. But voting rights groups had decried the legislation as tantamount to voter suppression, warning that it would make it more difficult to cast a ballot, especially for disabled or elderly voters.
Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, said county officials told the agency that the “vast majority” of mail-in ballot rejections were the result of voters failing to include any ID number on their ballot envelope.
In Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, rejection rates ranged from 7% to 11% in the most recent election. The elections administrator in Hays County, Jennifer Doinoff, did not return multiple requests for information.
Official tallies for Travis County showed 948 absentee ballots were rejected out of 11,602 turned in to the county. Victoria Hinojosa, spokeswoman for the Travis County election administrator, said 72% of the rejected ballots were cast in the Democratic primary and 28% in the Republican primary.
Hinojosa said a majority of the rejected ballots were denied due to ID issues. Originally, at least 16% of absentee ballots received by the county were rejected, but Hinojosa said that number was cut in half as voters corrected ID errors after being notified by the county of the mistake.
The new election law requires counties to contact voters who made mistakes on their ballot to let them rectify problems before election day.
By comparison, Hinojosa said, in the 2018 primary 9,000 ballots were returned and about 2% were ultimately rejected.
In Williamson County, 11.6% of mail ballot voters had their ballots rejected. That rate was slightly higher among Republican voters (260 ballots out of 1,883 at a 13% rate) than Democratic voters (261 ballots out of 2,627 ballots at a 10% rate.)
El Paso County also saw higher numbers of rejected ballots. Lisa Wise, the El Paso County elections administrator, said 725 ballots were rejected in the March primary — a steep increase from the 39 rejections in the March 2020 elections.
About 94% of the rejected absentee ballots, and 42% of the rejected applications to vote by mail, were due to the new law’s ID requirements.
Election and voting advocates who had fought against SB 1 say the rejection rates for mail-in ballots in the primary election are evidence that the new voting law’s effects are as bad or worse than they feared.
“I think we were all worried about vote-by-mail requirements, but I don’t think anyone expected for it to be quite this much of a catastrophe,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the nonpartisan elections and democracy organization Common Cause Texas, which is a member of the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee.
The committee, which also includes the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association North Texas Chapter, is suing Gov. Greg Abbott and the secretary of state’s office over SB 1.
Part of the problem, Gutierrez said, is that he is not seeing an earnest effort from the secretary of state to alert voters of the new changes.
“The secretary of state seemed to be doing little to nothing to educate Texans about the new requirements until the very last minute,” Gutierrez said. “Counties were just given the statute and left to figure it out by themselves.”
Williamson and Harris counties reported abnormally high call volumes in the weeks leading up to the primary election as staff tried to assist voters who were confused by the new law’s requirements and changes to the vote-by-mail process.
The flood of calls from voters also came as county election offices were scrambling to alert voters about the issues with their mail-in ballots, as well as learn about and implement all of the other changes included in SB 1, which took effect Dec. 2.
Davis said staff working at the elections office in Williamson County fielded numerous calls from frustrated voters.
“We never really know if the bad actors or folks that wanted to fraudulently apply for or submit ballots by mail have been successfully dissuaded by this, but the things that are measurable to us, and are knowable, are just the increased workload,” Davis said, adding that training materials from the secretary of state’s office were made available to counties after the application period for mail-in ballots had begun and after early voting was underway.
“We’re used to having all of our plans and preparations and logistics already laid out, mapped out weeks if not months before an election, and it was not at all that case for this election,” he said. “It was not unlike working on an engine of a plane that’s in midflight.”
Taylor said the secretary of state’s office devoted significant resources toward educating voters on the law’s new mail-in ballot ID requirements.
“We are confident we will have all the information we need to apply any lessons learned during the primary to an even more robust voter education campaign heading into the November general election,” he said in a statement.
Debbi Voss, vice president of the Austin chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the new law’s changes to mail-in ballots disproportionately affected elderly voters and people with disabilities, who are some of the only people who qualify to vote by mail under the state’s eligibility requirements.
Voss says the number of calls to the Austin chapter for voting help escalated in January and rose to as many as six to eight calls per day in February. She found many voters were confused by the new requirement to put either a driver’s license number or Social Security digits on the flap of the envelope, with some complaining that there were multiple envelopes with their ballot.
Voss recommended that voters who don’t remember which ID number they used on their vote-by-mail application to put both on their mail-in ballot to ensure it is not rejected.
“We shouldn’t need an advanced degree to be able to apply to get a ballot by mail,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”