Texas’s Confusing Voter Registration System Is An Early Result Of Congress's Failed Voting Rights Push

Thousands of Texas voters struggled to correctly submit mail ballot applications and ballots under a new, stringent law.

Julie Crum and her 91-year-old mother, Darlyne Crum, residents of Canyon Lake, Texas, first filled out applications for mail-in ballots in January, which they qualify for in the state because they are both over the age of 65. The applications were rejected — they accidentally hadn’t specified which party’s primary they wanted to vote in. So they filled out the forms again. Julie got her ballot after that, but her mother’s application was rejected a second time because of an issue with her ID number.

The second rejection letter, shared with BuzzFeed News, was dated Feb. 12, but Julie says her mother didn’t receive it until Feb. 16, two days before the mail-in ballot application deadline. Once again, the form was corrected and sent back, but they were worried the application hadn’t made it in time to meet the deadline.

Julie said her mother would be able to vote in person if she absolutely had to. “But it’s more than a little infuriating that she would have to,” said Julie, a Democrat who votes regularly. Julie said it’s never been this difficult for her and her mother to vote. “I didn’t plan on all this taking so much time and energy, so I’m kind of working it out as we go.”

Darlyne’s ballot arrived in the mail Thursday, just five days before Texas’s primary election, and they’re “pretty confident” their votes will be counted. But their frustration and struggles aren’t unique. Thousands of mail-in applications and ballots have been returned to voters ahead of the March 1 primaries with no guarantee that they’ll be sent back in time to be counted. The dilemma results from a new law that has effectively tightened access to the ballot for eligible voters, just as the law’s critics feared. Texas, the state that kicks off this year’s primary season, was one of several states that made a push for more restrictive voter laws following the 2020 elections, despite the fact that elections in the US have consistently been found not to have widespread voter fraud. Now Texans are running into the realities of those measures, from trouble successfully applying for mail-in ballots to having their actual ballots rejected because of ID number issues. Voting rights advocates have pointed to the state as an example of what’s at stake for voters across the country without federal protections.

“What we are seeing in Texas now is, I think, a preview of what we’re going to see in other states later this year when their primaries come along,” said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a group that is serving as counsel in one of the multiple legal challenges against the law. “There’s no reason to think that one or two dozen other states that passed similar legislation won’t face similar meltdowns when their time comes. If you live in one of the states, this is a warning sign to you that a potentially massive problem’s coming your way.”

Texas state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Democrat in her first term currently running for a seat in Congress, said there’s “no question” that Texans would have an easier time now if Congress had passed federal voting rights legislation. Crockett and dozens of her fellow Democrats left the state and traveled to DC in summer 2021, where their absence from the Texas legislature stalled the state’s voting measures, known as Senate Bill 1. While in Washington, where Democrats control the White House and narrowly hold both chambers of Congress, they lobbied for federal legislation that would protect voting rights as a backstop to Republican-led efforts on the state level, meeting with elected officials from Vice President Kamala Harris to Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

Just a few months later, hope for that legislation is nearly nonexistent, after all 50 Republican senators, Manchin, and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema voted no on an exception to Senate rules in January that would have allowed Democrats in the Senate to move forward on a bundle of measures aimed at standardizing elections and reinvigorating the Voting Rights Act with a simple majority. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 1 into law in September.

“I was naive. That’s all I can say. I was naive,” Crockett told BuzzFeed News. “And we will feel the effects of the inaction of the US Senate, sadly enough, in my opinion, potentially for generations to come.”

Texas already had some of the strictest voting laws in the nation, but this cycle, the new constraints are a reminder of the failure on the federal level to address many of the voting disparities that exist depending on the state you live in. For Democrats and Republicans, this has become a campaign issue as well as a civil rights one, and it’s featuring heavily in Texas now.

“Greg Abbott’s voter suppression law is working as intended, and it’s wreaking havoc on our elections,” said a fundraising email from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s campaign sent out last weekend. “This is not a drill. Congress has shown it won’t protect our voting rights. The Supreme Court won’t either.”

It’s not just Democrats who are raising concerns with SB1. Across the state, nonpartisan election officials have been scrambling to educate voters of all of the changes SB1 put in place. Of the nearly 36,000 mail ballot applications processed as of Feb. 21 by Harris County, which encompasses Houston and is the state’s most populous county, more than 5,000, or approximately 14%, were rejected specifically because of the new ID requirements, said Leah Shah, director of communications for Harris County elections. By Feb. 21, 2018, the last comparable midterm election year, only 7% were rejected for any reason at all. The cutoff to apply to vote by mail was last week, but the actual ballots are still being returned. As of Feb. 22, more than 7,100 of the 23,393 mail ballots the county had processed had been sent back for a correction related to the new ID laws. One of the ways the new measures have tripped voters up is by requiring that they provide an identification number that matches one of the numbers on their registration record — the problem, according to Shah, is that there can still be mismatches if, for example, a voter uses a valid identification number that isn’t on file. Another issue is that on the mail ballots many voters have entirely missed the field where they are to include an identification number, which is tucked underneath the flap of the carrier envelope.

In response, the county sent information to local news outlets and posted educational videos on social media. The county also expanded its call center, which has received more than 8,000 calls this year, almost 5,000 of which have been about mail ballot applications and ballots. That’s higher than the monthly call volume that the county received leading up to the November 2020 and 2021 elections.

“There really isn’t a lot of time to educate the general public about these changes to the law. We didn’t really know what the impact was going to be until we started receiving applications back and seeing the high percentages of rejections based on these new ID requirements,” Shah told BuzzFeed News, noting that Harris County, because of its size, has the luxury of resources that other counties in the state do not.

According to the Texas Secretary of State’s office, the vast majority of voters have both their license or state ID number and the last four digits of their Social Security number on file. Approximately 700,000 voters only have one identification number in their registration record, and 100,000 don’t have either.

Republicans claimed that the SB1 legislation would uphold election integrity, which there was no prior reason to doubt. Democrats and voting access advocates argued that the law would disproportionately affect marginalized voters. The legislation, in addition to the new ID requirements, also included an expansive set of measures that targeted things like in-person drive-thru voting.

“SB 1 was put into effect immediately after passage. There’s been very little time to adapt to the requirements or for the legal challenges to play out,” said Sarah Labowitz, the policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of Texas. “Not only is it bad law, but it’s bad practice to rush these changes into effect, and we’re seeing the consequences of that right now.”

Meanwhile, voting access advocates are lamenting how federal voting rights legislation could have bypassed the situation entirely. “We all understood without this federal backstop … states could really run amuck. So that’s the emphasis on our end,” said a Democratic staffer in the House who worked on the federal voting rights package. “We were looking at a collection of laws being introduced by state legislatures, and that is what the bill was meant to respond to, as well as what we saw with the Big Lie, and the stolen election, and just everything put together.”

Since 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, certain states, like Texas, have had broader discretion in changing their voting laws. By giving the Voting Rights Act teeth again through federal voting rights legislation, the state law could have been challenged. Depending on when the federal legislation had passed relative to the Texas bill, there would have been different ways to challenge the state bill as a whole.

While it takes time to implement legislation in its entirety, the federal legislation would also have contradicted parts of SB1. Among the provisions of the federal legislation Sinema, Manchin, and Republicans blocked were expanded access to voting by mail, and a measure that would have prohibited a state from denying an absentee ballot due to an error or omission related to identifying information if it wasn’t relevant to the voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot.

Other aspects of the federal legislation would also have helped modernize Texas’s election infrastructure over time. For example, the state only allows online voter registration when updating a driver’s license. Under the federal voting rights legislation that Congress could have passed, the state would have been required to implement it more broadly.

At least for now, a legislative change to SB1 is not on the horizon, on the state or federal level. SB1 has been the target of multiple lawsuits, from groups like the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project, as well as the Department of Justice. According to Sam Taylor, a spokesperson at the Office of the Texas Secretary of State, most of those lawsuits remain in preliminary stages. The White House did not provide comment when asked by BuzzFeed News whether the administration seeking additional places to take further action with regard to SB1, or whether President Joe Biden would like to see the DOJ investigate in light of the issues during the primary.

“To me, suffice it to say, things aren’t the way they should be,” said Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who, like Crockett, was an architect in Texas Democrats’ stalling SB1 by walking out of the state. “And it’s a shame.”

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