Harris County votes: Absentee ballot rejections rise since Senate Bill 1 passed

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — The number of rejected mail-in ballots in Harris County soared after the passage of Senate Bill 1 last year, from 135 rejected mail-in ballots in the November 6, 2018 midterm elections to nearly 7,100 rejected ballots in the March 1 primary elections.

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Statewide, a total of 24,636 mail-in ballots were rejected in the March 1 primary election, or about 14.2% of all mail-in ballots submitted, according to Texas Secretary of State The data.

According to a 2021 United States Election Assistance Commission report, Texas rejected about 8,000, or 0.08%, of the nearly one million mail-in ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election.

New regulations surrounding mail-in voting are one of many laws included in SB 1, a voting reform bill that was approved by the Texas Legislature in September.

According to Sam Taylor, spokesman for Texas Secretary of State John Scott, the addition of reconciliation reports – which require counties to compare the number of voters who validly voted with the number of votes counted by their system tab – added a new layer of transparency.

“The reconciliation form that was added in SB 1 has been the biggest help for our office in terms of tracking down any issues we see in reporting results,” Taylor said.

Since 2015, the state has successfully prosecuted 155 people for voter fraud crimes, according to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. While new mail-in voting regulations were approved to reduce the risk of fraudulent voting, local election officials and policy experts said the regulations added hurdles for people who vote by mail.

Among the officials who encountered problems with the new postal voting regulations were Harris County Elections Administrator Isabelle Longoria, who resigned from his post in April starting July 1 following difficulties with mail-in ballots in the March 3 primary. As the county struggles to adjust to SB 1, the Harris County Election Commission has appointed an executive search firm to fill Longoria’s position by June 30 to help lead the county’s elections. ahead of the general elections in November.

Refusal of postal ballots

To be eligible to vote by mail in Texas, state law dictates that an individual must be 65 years of age or older; sick or disabled; Out of the country; should give birth; or imprisoned but otherwise eligible to vote.

Under SB 1, voters are required to provide a partial Social Security number or driver’s license number on their absentee ballot applications to receive ballots. Once voters receive their ballots, they must include the same numbers used on their applications for the ballots to be counted.

Longoria said many voters missed the new ID portion on their mail-in ballot applications or failed to provide matching ID numbers when returning their ballots. Additionally, Longoria said a privacy shutter to protect voter ID numbers also caused problems.

In May, Texas secretary of state officials unveiled new mail-in ballot envelopes that highlight the identification portion on the ballot with a large box, but Longoria said she believes her placement under the privacy pane could still result in rejections.

According to Taylor, the privacy component is required by law to protect voter identification numbers.

While Harris County’s mail-in ballot rejection rate fell from 19.2% in the March primaries to 9.9% in the May 7 local election, Longoria said she doesn’t expect the decline to continue in the midterm elections.

“(Local elections generally have) a much smaller electorate, and they tend to have the most concentrated, educated and informed voters, so (those voters) are likely to be more aware of the provisions,” Longoria said. .

In Montgomery County, about 6.2% of the 5,142 mail-in ballots cast in the March primaries were rejected, compared to 0.23% in the 2020 presidential election. In the May 7 election, the the county’s absentee ballot rejection rate fell to 0.67%.

According Montgomery County Elections Manager Estela Sánchez, the county’s declining rejection rate can be attributed to an official insert included with every mail-in voting kit providing step-by-step instructions.

In a May 7 local election determining two commissioner positions for Harris County Emergency Services District #11-which provides services in parts of Humble-the winner of the last at-large position won by 84 votes. Of the 2,784 mail-in ballots sent out in the contest, 484 were rejected.

Additional barriers

Montgomery County Elections Administrator Suzie Harvey said the introduction of the new mail-in ballot requirements has created challenges for older and disabled voters. Under SB 1, corrections to absentee ballots must be made in person or through the state’s online absentee ballot tracking.

“Some of (these voters) can’t do either, whether it’s because they’re confined to some type of medical facility or housebound, or they have technology difficulties” , said Harvey. “Sometimes when our staff interact with them, they get so frustrated that they just say they’re not going to vote anymore.”

Longoria cited similar concerns with Harris County residents using the state’s website.

“If the state hasn’t registered your correct driver’s license or social security number, which they want you to correct, you can’t access the state’s website,” Longoria said.

Additionally, Longoria said members of the military or residents living overseas may be prevented from making corrections to mail-in ballots if they cannot correct them on the government’s website. State.

“You can’t come in and cure your ballot,” she said. “The only way you have to engage in voting is gone.”

Taylor said state officials have worked to address those concerns, and many of the issues encountered in the March primaries have since improved.

Looking for solutions

As the Nov. 8 midterm elections approach, Longoria said officials are creating new protocols to keep the county’s mail-in ballot rejection rate from rising.

“We’re getting better at calling people and explaining how to enter and correct their mail-in ballots,” Longoria said, noting his team is implementing improvements to help election officials track forms internally.

In April, Longoria announced that she was stepping down from her post after officials revealed 10,000 absentee ballots went unentered on the evening of the March 3 primary election. County officials had not named Longoria’s replacement as of press time June 21.

In Montgomery County, Harvey said the county will continue to include information inserts in mail-in ballot kits and train staff members to process ballots and assist voters more effectively.

As November approaches, Taylor said the state is planning a two-month campaign that will reach out to senior centers and senior living facilities to provide guidance to those who may be impacted by the new requirements. postal voting.

Renee Cross, Senior Director of Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houstonsaid that while it is unclear whether problems with mail-in voting will persist, turnout in the March primaries suggests SB 1 may not lead to the voter suppression his opponents feared.

“I think in some ways just bringing attention to the new laws (in the media) and the threat that they might suppress the vote…has actually had the opposite effect and pushed the people to come forward,” Cross said.

This article comes from our partners ABC13 on Community impact newspapers.

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Norman D. Briggs