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Hundreds of mail-in ballots are being returned to Texas voters due to the new voting law

Harris County election workers process and sort mail-in ballots at NRG stadium on Oct. 5, 2020.
Pu Ying Huang
The Texas Tribune
Harris County election workers process and sort mail-in ballots at NRG stadium on Oct. 5, 2020.

Local elections officials say an unexpectedly large number of ballots for the March primary are being initially rejected for lacking newly required ID information.

Stricter voting rules enacted by Republican lawmakers last year continue to foil Texans trying to vote by mail in the upcoming primary, with hundreds of completed ballots being initially rejected for not meeting the state’s new identification requirements.

The bulk of mail-in ballots have yet to arrive at elections offices, but local officials are already reporting that a significant number are coming in without the newly required ID information. As of Wednesday, election officials in Harris County alone had flagged 1,360 mail-in ballots to be sent back to voters — 40% of the mail-in ballots returned up to that point — because they lacked an ID number.

Under the state’s new rules, officials cannot accept ballots without the ID information on the return envelopes containing the ballot and must mail them back if there’s enough time for the voter to send back a corrected envelope.

“We’ll see how many we get back,” said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator. “That’s our big question mark right now: Are voters going to go through the extra step to correct it?”

The new ID requirements are the earliest rule changes to kick in under the law that Republican lawmakers enacted last year to further tighten voting procedures in the state. The law, known as SB 1, ratchets up the state’s already strict rules for voting by mail by requiring absentee voters to include a state identification number like a driver’s license number, or — if they don’t have a driver’s license — a partial Social Security number, both when requesting a mail-in ballot and when returning a completed ballot.

Those numbers must match information in a voter’s record for ballot requests to be accepted and votes to be counted.

New rules for voting by mail

1.You must provide an ID number

The Texas Legislature last year created new identification requirements for voting by mail that require voters to provide their driver’s license or state ID number or, if they haven’t been assigned those, the last four digits of their Social Security number. If they don’t have either, voters can also indicate they have not been issued that identification.

2. This is required both when applying for a ballot and when you return it

On an application for a mail-in ballot, the ID field is near the top of the form. If you're returning a completed ballot, you'll find the ID field under the flap of the carrier envelope your county sent you with your ballot. The deadline for counties to receive applications is Feb. 18. Completed ballots must be postmarked by 7 p.m. on March 1. They can also be delivered in person on election day.

3. Your ID number must match your voter registration record

It's unlikely that voters know which number is attached to their voter registration record. While the new rules only require you to provide one ID number, voters can provide both a driver's license number and the last four digits of your Social Security number to avoid issues. Counties must accept applications with both numbers, as long as at least one matches what they have on file.

4. You can make corrections if you forget to include it

For applications: You may be able to correct the issue by signing in to the state's new online ballot tracker using both your driver's license number and partial Social Security number. If you're unable to correct the issue online, you may have to send in a new application.

For ballots: The process for correcting an ID issue depends on when your county receives your ballot. If there's enough time before the deadline, officials will send back your carrier envelope with instructions on how to submit the missing ID information. Closer to election day, officials will instead try to notify you about the issue by phone or email. You can then go to the county's elections office in person, use the ballot tracker to verify the missing information, or cancel your mail-in ballot and vote in person.

The new ID rules have already prompted hundreds of rejected ballot requests, often because voters did not provide any ID numbers at all. But 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. 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,” Anderson said.

Other suburban counties are seeing similar rates. Election officials in Williamson County said about 30% of completed ballots were missing ID numbers.

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.

The voting law allows for a correction process, but local election officials and voters are facing a time crunch.

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.

Those determinations are made by panels of election workers responsible for qualifying mail-in ballots. The Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, has advised counties to convene those panels as early as possible to give voters the maximum amount of time to make a correction.

“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,” said Heather Hawthorne, the county clerk of Chambers County.

The smaller county east of Houston hasn’t seen ID issues “in extremely high numbers,” but Hawthorne knows the importance of giving absentee voters enough time to safeguard their votes.

In Texas, only a sliver of the electorate is allowed to vote by mail, but absentee voting is often used by people for whom voting in person can be a challenge, including Texans with disabilities.

Only voters who are 65 or older automatically qualify for a mail-in ballot. Otherwise, voters must qualify under a limited set of reasons, including absence from the county during the election period or a disability or illness that would keep them from voting in person without needing help or that makes a trip to the polls risky to their health.

But the deluge of mail-in ballots won’t come in until closer to deadline. Voters have until election day — March 1 for the primary — to return their ballots.

Officials in larger counties are staffing up ahead of the rush — and a possible spike in defective ballots under the new rules.

Harris County, home to Houston, has doubled the number of workers managing its voter call center, and it’s scrambling to add more workers to its mail ballot team. It has increased the size of the panel of election workers who are qualifying mail-in ballots by 30%, and Longoria expects they’ll have to work double the number of days when the crush of ballots comes in.

As of Tuesday, Harris County had received only about 10% of the more than 27,000 mail-in ballots it had sent out to voters who requested them. (That number is expected to grow further because voters can request mail-in ballots up until Feb. 18.)

El Paso County’s elections administrator Lisa Wise said the county is almost doubling the size of its review panel, which may have to add hours or days to its working schedule. The county had not yet started processing completed mail-in ballots as of Wednesday.

Elections workers were still working through hundreds of applications for mail-in ballots that were missing ID numbers.