Attendees hold up signs during a rally at the state Capitol on June 20, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

Attendees hold up signs during a rally at the state Capitol on June 20, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

GOP Law Blamed as Nearly 40% of Mail-In Ballots Rejected in Houston Area

"Mail ballots are people's votes," said a Harris County elections administrator who is "very concerned" about the anti-democratic effects of the Texas GOP's new voter suppression law.

As early voting continues in Texas' primary election, pro-democracy advocates are sounding the alarm over the high rate at which mail-in ballots are being rejected as a result of the GOP's newly enacted voter suppression law.

Election officials in Harris County said they had returned almost 2,500 of the 6,548 mail-in ballots received as of Saturday due to cumbersome new ID rules--a rejection rate of nearly 38% in Texas' most populous county, a Democratic stronghold that includes Houston and more than 2.4 million voters.

Civil rights advocates have pointed to a record number of mail-in ballot rejections during the opening days of early voting in Texas' 2022 primaries as evidence of the effectiveness of the Republican Party's draconian voter suppression law, Senate Bill 1.

"Mail ballots are people's votes," Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, toldNPR on Tuesday. "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."

Texas already had some of the nation's most restrictive voting rules, but last year the GOP-controlled state Legislature and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott approved sweeping changes--including new ID requirements for mail-in ballots, a ban on drive-thru voting, and limits on counties' ability to expand voting options--that critics warned would make voting even harder. Emerging data shows those worries were warranted.

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Texas only allows people who are 65 and older, disabled, out of town, or in jail to vote by mail. Under Senate Bill 1, the ID used to request and return a mail-in ballot--whether it is a driver's license number or partial Social Security number--must match what is on a voter's registration record.

This requirement has already derailed thousands of voters who didn't remember which ID they used to register--often several years ago--when requesting mail-in ballots. As of one month ago, roughly half of mail-in voting applications had been rejected in Travis County--Texas' fifth-largest county and home of the state capital, Austin--as Common Dreams reported.

The Texas Tribunereported late last week that "even counties that saw few request rejections are now grappling with high rates of faulty ballots."

"That includes Hays County, where about 30% of the voters who had already returned their mail-in ballots had not filled out the ID requirement," noted the Tribune. "Those are early figures, as ballots are only starting to trickle in, so Jennifer Anderson, the county's elections administrator, is hoping voter outreach efforts will help curb more errors."

"We usually have a very low rejection rate so it's not something we want to see in Hays County," said Anderson.

The Tribune added that "other suburban counties are seeing similar rates. Election officials in Williamson County said about 30% of completed ballots were missing ID numbers."

According to the newspaper:

The ID requirements forced a redesign of the carrier envelopes used to return mail-in ballots, allowing them to be sealed in a way that protects a voter's sensitive information while traveling through the mail. The ID field was placed under the envelope flap. But based on early figures, local election officials this week said they feared voters were missing it altogether.

While voters are permitted to fix ballot issues, the window to do so is narrow and rapidly closing with Election Day just two weeks away. Officials expect to see more mistakes between now and March 1, when the vast majority of mail-in ballots arrive. Whether voters are made aware of errors in a timely manner depends in large part on the existence of resources that vary widely across Texas' 254 counties.

As The Tribune explained:

Defective ballots must be sent back to voters if they arrive early enough to be sent back and corrected. If officials determine there's not enough time, they must notify the voter by phone or email. Voters must then visit the elections office in person to correct the issue, or use the state's new online ballot tracker to verify the missing information.

"Obviously the main concern, I think, with most election officials is that people that receive ballots by mail may not have the ability to come to the clerk's office," Heather Hawthorne, the county clerk of Chambers County, told the newspaper.

After Abbott signed Senate Bill 1 into law in September, rights groups took legal action, arguing that the changes would disproportionately impact the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people of color. The Biden Justice Department also filed a lawsuit alleging that the new restrictions violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.

Although parts of Senate Bill 1 have been temporarily blocked in the courts, much of the Texas GOP's anti-voter law is now in effect. Amid the state's first major election since the legislation was enacted, the potential for disenfranchisement is becoming increasingly apparent, according to on-the-ground reports.

Senate Bill 1 is part of a nationwide assault on the franchise by state-level Republicans that includes map-rigging, new voter identification laws, and a reduction in early voting and polling places and hours.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting in 2021--a "tidal wave" of voter suppression that shows no sign of slowing down as the nation heads into the 2022 midterms and, before too long, campaigns for the 2024 general election.

As of January 14, according to the latest tally from the Brennan Center, "legislators in at least 27 states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 250 bills with restrictive provisions."

The GOP's attack on democracy has been fueled by an avalanche of lies about voter fraud and a stolen election repeated ad nauseam by former President Donald Trump and other right-wing figures.

Voting rights advocates have argued that the best way to counter GOP voter suppression efforts is by passing two pieces of federal legislation--the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Those bills have stalled in Congress, however, due to the opposition of every Republican and a pair of right-wing Democratic senators.

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