El Paso election administrators are rejecting a higher number of absentee voter applications than in previous years because of new statewide voting restrictions.
El Paso County Elections Administrator Lisa Wise said her office rejected 7% of 2,400 mail-in vote applications received for the March 1 primary election as of Friday. The majority of those 166 rejections were due to new identification requirements which complicate voting from home.
Senate Bill 1, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in September, enacted sweeping changes to the state’s elections law. Voters applying for a mail-in ballot must now provide the same driver’s license number, state ID number or Social Security information that they initially used to register to vote. If these don’t match the information on file, election officials must reject their applications.
Republican state lawmakers said the additional restrictions were needed to boost election security, despite no evidence of significant election fraud. Democrats and voting rights groups said SB 1 makes it harder for Black and Latino voters to cast a ballot. The Department of Justice has sued Texas over the law, saying it also disenfranchises elderly, disabled and non-English speaking voters.
Wise said her office rejected 155 vote-by-mail applications because they failed to meet the new ID requirements. These included voters who applied using an outdated application form that didn’t require the new identification information.
“I want to emphasize that the new form is on our website,” she said. “People cannot use the form that we sent out last election, it has to be the new form.”
Another nine applications were rejected because they didn’t select a party affiliation -- a requirement to vote in a primary -- and two because they lacked signatures.
In cases when a mail-in ballot application is rejected, the El Paso County Elections Department mails out a new application.
Elections officials across the state have seen a rise in absentee ballot rejections ahead of the March primary. The Travis County Clerk’s Office made headlines earlier this month when it announced it had initially rejected close to half of all applications. That’s since dropped to 27%, The Texas Tribune reported.
Absentee voters in Texas must apply to vote by mail. Elections administrators must receive mail-in ballot applications by Feb. 18 for the March 1 Democratic and Republican primaries. The deadline to register to vote in that election is Jan. 31.
Texas has more stringent limits for mail-in voting compared to other states, requiring absentee voters to be age 65 and older; sick or disabled; outside of the county on election day and during early voting; expected to give birth around the election; or in jail.
In Texas and throughout the nation, more voters cast ballots by mail in recent elections due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
El Paso County saw a 300% increase in mail-in ballot applications in the November 2020 general election compared to the 2018 election, Wise said. The elections department received 36,000 vote-by-mail requests that year -- the highest number to date -- compared to 12,000 in 2018.
The rejection rate for absentee ballots in the 2020 general election was about 1% or 381 applications.
In response to reports of higher rejection rates, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office urged county election officials in a statement to “seek advice and assistance on the correct method of processing mail ballot applications.” That office oversees state elections.
El Paso County elections officials were trained last week on using the state’s mail-in ballot tracker, a new electronic system to help voters track their application’s status, or update any conflicting information.
SB1 also prohibits elections officials from promoting mail-in voting or mailing out absentee ballot applications to those eligible unless requested. In the last seven years, the El Paso County Elections Department sent a reminder letter and application to anyone 65 and older who had requested to vote by mail in prior years.
With early voting less than three weeks away, Wise’s office has yet to receive even half the number of mail-in ballot applications that were submitted for the 2020 primary election.
“Our mail-in numbers have gone down in a pandemic, which is unfortunate. But that's what the law allows for right now,” she said.
Under the new law, elections officials can only send out mail-in ballot applications to individual voters who request one. Candidates, political parties and voter groups such as the League of Women Voters can still send out applications.
The El Paso County Democratic Party is coordinating with the state party to send updated mail-in ballot applications to people aged 65 and older, Chair-elect Mike Apodaca said.
“The main thing right now is educating folks that this is the law now, it’s not a scam,” he said of the ID requirements. “Especially for people aged 65 and up, they may feel uncomfortable giving out their ID number or the last four of their social.”
El Paso County Republican Party Chair Ray Baca said he isn’t focusing on disseminating absentee ballots to area Republicans. Instead, the party has prioritized fundraising events.
With hometown Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke challenging Abbott for governor, Baca anticipates more El Pasoans will head to the polls this midterm election.
“We have to combat the Beto effect,” Baca said. “That means a focus on in-person, community events.”
Wise encourages voters to contact the elections department with any questions about registration, absentee ballots or polling information.
“I want to talk to people the sooner the better,” she said. “I'd love to answer these questions next week, rather than on Election Day.”
Cover photo: A stained glass window of the El Paso County seal at the El Paso County Courthouse. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)