The rate of rejected mail ballots soared in the March primary elections in Texas — and those rejections disproportionately affected Democrats, especially Black voters in the state’s biggest county.
Nearly 23,000 ballots, or about 13% of all returned mail ballots, were thrown out across 187 Texas counties in the March primaries, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. In past election years, the rejection rate was around 1% to 2%, according to the Texas Tribune.
The rejection rate hit more liberal areas of the state with more than 15% of mail ballots thrown out in Democratic-leaning counties, compared to 9.1% in Republican-leaning counties. In Tarrant County, election officials rejected 813 ballots in the Democratic primary under the new voter ID rules, but just three ballots in the Republican primary, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
One of the highest rates of rejections was in Harris County, which includes Houston and is the state’s largest population center (and the third most populous county in the nation). Election officials were forced to discard nearly 7,000 ballots there, about 19% of all returned mail ballots. They threw out just 0.3% of returned mail ballots in the 2018 primaries.
The March election data also shows a stark racial disparity, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Voters in areas of Harris County with large Black populations were 44% more likely to have their mail ballots tossed than voters in areas with large white populations.
Texas already limits mail voting to voters over 65 or those who have a verified excuse to vote absentee. The startling increase in mail ballot rejections could foreshadow an even larger wave of thrown-out ballots in the general election, which is likely to see much higher turnout. That could potentially be echoed in the 18 other states that have imposed harsh new voting restrictions after former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss.
Most of the rejected ballots were flagged under a provision in the new voting law that requires voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number. Some voters left the field blank or entered an ID number different than the one election officials had on file. The state provides a limited period of time for voters to correct problems on their ballots, but the vast majority of ballots flagged for rejection were not fixed before the deadline.
The reason for the disparities in rejection rates between Texas counties is unclear. While Harris County, which has 2.5 million registered voters, rejected about 19% of mail ballots, Dallas County, which has 1.4 million registered voters, rejected only about 9.5% of mail ballots.
Geographic and demographic differences between those counties could well play a role. Harris County spans more than 1,700 square miles, nearly twice as much as Dallas County, which made it challenging to “reach every voter with very limited resources,” Harris County Elections spokeswoman Nadia Hakim said in an email to Salon.
Hakim also said that Harris County officials “did not receive any guidance or materials from the Texas Secretary of State, nor did we receive a budget to run campaigns or advertisements to educate voters on the changes.” She added that county election officials spent three months educating voters before the election and allocating staff to focus on outreach to voters whose ballots were marked for rejection.
Hakim said that her office “is deeply troubled by the number of mail ballot rejections” during the March primary, especially considering the much lower number of rejections in 2018. “The new voting laws brought on by Senate Bill 1 are leading to the disenfranchisement of Harris County’s most vulnerable populations, including communities of color, the elderly, and voters with disabilities.”
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Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, told Salon that state officials have heard from county officials that the vast majority of rejected mail ballots “were due to voters who did not provide any ID information on their carrier envelope,” even though they had successfully applied for a mail-in ballot using the same ID information.
Taylor said the office is now devoting “a significant portion of our voter education campaign to enhancing awareness of the new mail-in ballot ID requirements.” He continued, “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” directed at the general election in November.
Voting rights groups are skeptical that Texas officials will do enough, and say the stark increase in ballot rejections demonstrates the need for federal intervention.
“Texas was already the hardest state to vote in before Republicans passed these laws that made it even harder,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in a statement to Salon. “What we’re seeing today is a small preview of what we can expect to see at a far wider scale in November unless the federal government finally takes real action to intervene.”
Gutierrez said the Texas secretary of state’s office was repeatedly told about the potential for these problems when the voting-restriction bill was going through committee. He suggested that state officials had “ample opportunity” to address these issues but “instead chose to focus on playing politics [as] implementation was left to local officials who received little to no guidance or communication from our state’s chief election officer.” He predicted “far bigger problems in November when we have exponentially more people showing up to the polls.”
Last November, the Justice Department sued Texas over the new voting law, alleging that restrictive measures in the bill violate both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. The complaint specifically notes that the provision requiring the rejection of mail ballots due to “certain paperwork errors or omissions that are not material to establishing a voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot” violates the Civil Rights Act.
The bill’s restrictions on “which absentee ballots cast by eligible voters can be accepted by election officials are unlawful and indefensible,” DOJ Civil Rights Division chief Kristen Clarke said last year.
More than a dozen Texas Democrats sent a letter to Clarke earlier this month asking the federal government to expedite its lawsuit against the state due to an “unprecedented” increase in rejected mail ballots.
“Unfortunately, this wrongdoing is a direct — and intended — result of Texas Senate Bill 1 … with the sole purpose of making it more difficult for Texans to vote and, thereby, undermining the democratic process,” the letter said, calling on the Justice Department to “deploy the necessary resources to combat this injustice.”
Rep. Mark Veasey, the lead author of the letter, said in a statement that the “destructive” Republican voting law “disproportionately undermines the voice — and vote — of minority and low-income communities.”
It’s by no means clear that the federal lawsuit will succeed, especially since it is likely at some point to come before the current Supreme Court, whose conservative supermajority has already let other legally dubious election laws stand. Attorney General Merrick Garland warned last year that the DOJ’s power to protect voting rights was limited after the Supreme Court gutted part of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any electoral changes with the department.
Democrats have repeatedly attempted to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the pre-clearance requirement (among other voting reforms) but it has been repeatedly filibustered by Republicans. Two “moderate” Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have rejected their own party’s efforts to repeal the filibuster, effectively dooming the legislation (which both claim to support).
Voting rights groups say the Senate needs to renew its effort to pass the voting rights legislation ahead of the upcoming elections. The Texas law “caused heart-breaking confusion” in the March primaries that “hit older voters and voters with disabilities particularly hard,” Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said in a statement to Salon.
“In Harris County, older Black voters were especially impacted by this anti-voter legislation,” Chimene said. “This law is a throwback to the poll taxes of the Jim Crow era. … The federal Voting Rights Act must be restored to ensure that every voter in Texas — regardless of where they live, what they look like, how old they are, if they have disabilities, or what language they speak — has equal access to the ballot box.”