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How Texas’ New Election Law Affected Tarrant County’s Primaries

Results show 815 ballots were rejected over the bill’s new ID requirement in Tarrant County, alone; 812 of which were in the Democratic primary. Across Texas, 13 percent of ballots were rejected for the same reason.

(TNS) — Texas' new election law resulted in confusion and hundreds of votes uncounted as officials scrambled to prepare for the changes.

The March 1 Democratic and Republican primaries were the first Texas elections with a wide-reaching voting law in effect. The bill — Senate Bill 1 — and earlier versions made national headlines during the 2021 legislative session and subsequent special sessions. Democrats and voting rights advocates warned it would disenfranchise voters. Republicans said it was needed to promote election integrity.

The full impact of the law is still being assessed, as it made its way through the state house, concerns were raised about emboldened partisan poll watchers, limited voting hours and the removal of drive thru voting locations like those used amid COVID-19 in Harris County. Leading up to the election and in the weeks since, an new voter ID requirement for absentee voters has emerged as having one of the most prominent effects.

In Tarrant County alone, 815 ballots were rejected over the ID rule — three in the Republican primary and 812 in the Democratic primary. Those interviewed for this story said they could not provide a definitive reason for the discrepancy between the parties.

In Texas, nearly 23,000 ballots, — 13 percent — were rejected for reasons that include the ID requirement, according to an analysis by the Associated Press of 187 counties in the state.

"This is happening to average, ordinary people," said Carolyn Shannon, a Tarrant County voter. "I mean, I'm not anybody important. I'm just a voter, and I think it's important that I be able to continue to do that."

The 69-year-old Hurst resident has never had issues voting by mail before, but this year was different.

Shannon, who is visually impaired, filled out her ballot and sent it in as she usually does, but didn't notice a place on the envelope for her to include identification information.

Less than a week before Election Day, Shannon said she received a phone call informing her of a ballot error. She was told to go to the election clerk, void her mail-in ballot and vote in person.

The task felt insurmountable. Shannon was confident she wouldn't be able to vote. She needed transportation to the polls and spent two days trying to figure out how to get there.

"I was just in shock, and I didn't know what to do," she said.

Shannon is one example of hundreds voters who struggled with the new ID rule.

"It's just wrong," Shannon said. "The right to vote is a right that we have in this country."

Ultimately, her vote wasn't counted. She got a ride to the polls, but according to the elections office, her provisional ballot cast during the primary was rejected for lack of voter ID.

With the primaries complete, state and local election officials are turning their focus to what worked and what must be fixed ahead of the May municipal and primary runoff elections and the general election in November when the law will again be put to the test.

The First Tarrant County Election Under Texas' New Law

For Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia, the main challenge was the short time between the law passing and the primaries.

The law was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in September following a second special session and went into effect Dec. 2.

"People think of the election as March 1, but for us activity starts way back in December, so there wasn't a lot of time between the bill being passed and that stage where we're gearing up for us to get ready," Garcia said.

The preparations were taken day-by-day as "late in the game" guidance was issued by the state, Garcia said.

"Adapting late and changing procedures and supplies, processes that late in the game, entails a risk, right?" he said. "You read something, you figure out a plan and you have very little time to run through it and make sure the plan doesn't have holes in it."

The election was a rocky one in Tarrant County. On top of the new law, there were delays in reporting Election Day results due to a machine malfunction and reports of polling places with a shortage of Democratic workers, resulting in opening delays.

"First times are always difficult and painful," Garcia said.

'We Saw This Coming'

Katherine Cano hates tossing out ballots that in the past would have been counted. As the presiding judge of the Democrats' early voting ballot board in Tarrant County, it's her job to help review which mail-in ballots are accepted and which are rejected. Primaries are run by the parties, so both Democrats and Republicans have their own board.

"It's depressing," she said. "I'm not really a drinker, but I've had more after work drinks this election than usually I have in a year. It's awful. It's heartbreaking."

In Tarrant, about 8.3 percent of mail-in ballots received were rejected. The rejection rate is less than some other Texas counties, according to the AP analysis. Dallas County had 10 percent of ballots rejected; 18.7 percent were rejected in Harris County and 22.8 percent in Bexar County. Travis County saw a 8.2 percent rejection rate.

Many of the rejections are related to the ID requirement — absentee voters must include their driver's license number, election identification certificate number, DPS personal identification number or the last four digits of their Social Security number when submitting their ballot.

That number must identify the "same voter identified on the voter 's application for voter registration," the law states.

Tarrant County Republican Chair Rick Barnes supports the change. Voters who cast ballots in person are required to have identification or submit a reasonable impediment declaration with alternative documentation.

"If you had a reason to be able to vote mail-in, you did not have the same requirement," he said. "We've never thought that that was a fair reality. ... If there was an opportunity for fraud in the process, that by itself would open the door wide open for a potential of fraud. We've always argued for the need for more protection on those mail-in ballots."

Cano sees the law as cumbersome and counterproductive to increased election integrity and security. Longtime voters are being disenfranchised and the process is being made more difficult for new voters, she said.

"We saw this coming," Cano said.

The ID rule has created distrust among voters 65 and older — an automatic qualifier to vote by mail, said Jocelyn Pantke, a Libertarian who serves on the ballot board.

"People 65 and older are the biggest users of mail-in ballots, and they have been told for years, do not give out your personal information. It's not safe. Everything's a scam," she said. "Well, all of a sudden, the Texas Legislature says, you have to do this to be valid."

The rule should be addressed by the Legislature, Cano said.

"I think it needs to be rolled back," she said. "But if they're not willing to do that, then they need to address the actual specific implementation of it, because it was terrible. It was rushed, and they didn't listen to anyone that they solicited feedback from."

Ballot application rejections were the subject of a March 1 letter from members of Congress to the Justice Department. They asked the department to expedite a pending lawsuit against Texas related to the law.

"Obviously, there's an emergency and the Republicans don't need to be prideful. They don't need to try to defend the indefensible they need to just admit that they went too far and it was a mistake," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Fort Worth. " There's just no way that there should have been that many ballots that had to be thrown out because of this law."

Fixing Ballots Comes With Obstacles

Voters can fix their ballots by appearing in person and filling out a form, using an online ballot tracker or voting in person. But there was confusion over how ballots could be corrected, which led to different versions of instructions being given to voters, Cano said.

It's up to the ballot board to track down contact information for voters and reach out to them by phone, email or mail to inform them of errors with their ballot. Voters responded that they were discouraged and didn't want to go through the trouble to vote.

"They're so upset. Voters are angry," Cano said. "It's very, very demoralizing."

Judy Alter, 83 and Fort Worth, has been voting by mail for 18 years. This year she tried to do the same in the Democratic Primary, but met hurdle after hurdle.

Her first application was lost somewhere between going to her mailbox and getting to the election office. Her second application was rejected because she didn't see that she needed to include her driver's license number or the last four digits of her Social Security number.

"I confess I should have read the fine print, but I've been voting for years, and it's all been OK, and I haven't had to give out that information, so I didn't do it and they rejected it," Alter said.

She resubmitted the application with the needed information, got a mail-in ballot and returned it. The ballot was also rejected because she didn't include the identification information on the carrier envelope.

"For me the whole impression was that there were a bunch of obstacles put in the way of my voting," Alter said. "I'm concerned that instead of encouraging people to get out and vote, we're discouraging them. We're making it hard for them."

Alter had the option of submitting a correction, but it had to be presented in person.

"I said, 'Wait, the whole point of my voting by mail is that it's next to impossible — it's not impossible, but it's very difficult — for me to vote in person," she said. "I don't drive anymore. Somebody has to take me up there. So what they offered was, when I got up there they would do curbside service. I almost laughed."

Cano described problems with the state's mail-in ballot tracker, created by a different bill. For one, it only works if voters have both their state ID and your Social Security number and both of those numbers are on file with the Texas Secretary of State. Workers have also had problems with the way addresses are formatted in the system, Cano said.

"This entire ballot tracker system is broken very badly," she said.

The Texas Secretary of State's office is working with its vendor to make the tracker more user-friendly, spokesperson Sam Taylor said in an email. He said the office hopes to have the changes in place "well before the November election, and possibly before the May elections."

What Worked, What Didn't, What Needs To Be Done Going Forward

Cano likes some components of the law: The bill allowed for expanded access to voter signature history used to verify signatures. She also supports the idea of correcting mail-in ballots, even if difficulties with the process need to be addressed.

Ahead of the coming elections, the key is voter education, Cano said. This includes reaching out to those voters who had their ballots rejected.

The ballot board tries to ensure people's votes are counted, but ultimately the law is the law, she said.

"So voters have to be empowered with whatever knowledge they have to make sure that they do as much as they possibly can to make sure that there's no possible way their ballot can be rejected," Cano said.

Barnes, the Tarrant County GOP chair, thought the video feed of the ballot board room and the presence of a sheriff's department employee — both requirements of the new law — were improvements from past elections. He also supported new training for poll watchers.

"I think we will continue to evaluate and determine what's the best next steps and what we can share with our legislators to try to put in law moving forward, but we think the decisions that were made last year in SB 1 have proven to be effective for the election process," Barnes said.

Garcia, the election administrator, said his department will review lessons learned from the election, including the process of handling ballots for the ballot board.

"We need to sit down with them and figure out where we can streamline and give them more resources and better tools," Garcia said.

But many of the challenges may have been avoided with more time to prepare.

"Timing was definitely an issue and I don't think... risk calculation is involved in making bills and I think that's an important lesson learned for lawmakers," Garcia said.

A spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State's office said the office plans to focus educational efforts on the new mail-in ballot ID requirement.

"While in years past our office has focused our voter education efforts on in-person ID requirements, this year we are also devoting a significant portion of our voter education campaign to enhancing awareness of the new mail-in ballot ID requirements," Taylor said in an email. "We are confident we have the data and research we need to apply any lessons learned during the primary to an even more robust voter education campaign heading into the November General Election."

Some might be discouraged, but Alter is set on voting in November after having her ballot tossed out.

"It made me more determined to... cross every 't' and dot every 'i' in the November election," she said. "It did not discourage me from voting, but I think there are a lot of people given the same circumstances would be discouraged."

(c)2022 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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