Texas is off to a rocky start implementing its new voting law, S.B. 1, enacted in 2021. Mail ballot applications are getting rejected by the hundreds, election officials’ hands are tied, and there’s a looming deadline for the March 1 primaries. Texas lawmakers should use this moment as lessons learned and act now to prevent excessive ballot rejections in November.
The new legislation requires absentee voters to submit their driver’s license or state ID number on their mail ballot application. If a voter doesn’t have a DL or state ID number, they can submit the last four digits of their Social Security number, or a statement confirming that they do not have the required identification. However, these new ID requirements don’t mesh well with the information election officials have historically provided Texans about registering to vote.
According to the Texas secretary of state’s office, about 702,257 voters have either an ID number or SSN on file with elections offices, but not both. In practice, that means a voter would have to know which number is on file when submitting their ballot application, lest they submit the wrong number and have their ballot get rejected. Texas’ restrictive mail voting rules mean that only certain populations are even eligible to vote by mail, thus reducing the potentially disenfranchising impact of this policy failure.
“It is not unusual for primaries to have a higher [rejection rate] than … other elections,” Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir remarked during a press conference, “But that’s really high.” DeBeauvoir reported having to reject roughly 27% of mail ballot applications so far this primary season. Harris County, Texas’ most populous county, has rejected roughly seven times more applications than usual.
Good election policy anticipates downstream impacts. S.B. 1 was rammed through the legislative process largely without the input of local election officials. It’s unsurprising that counties are now unequipped to handle the unusually large amount of rejected applications resulting from the law’s policy changes.
Texas lawmakers should take this oversight as an opportunity to strengthen voter registration and verification procedures. They can start by better incorporating the input of local election officials into the policymaking process—before implementation.
To ensure fair and equitable access to the ballot, Texas should consider the following reforms ahead of the November election:
- New remote voter identity verification policies should be phased in, not implemented all at once. BPC has highlighted the potential for voter ID numbers to function as an alternative to signature verification, the current industry standard for verifying the identity of mail voters. However, states must ensure that election officials have the voter data on hand to verify identity without excessive, unnecessary rejections before the policy is implemented. States considering this alternative should phase the practice in to give voters and election officials time to adjust.
- Automatic Voter Registration can improve the quality of voter registration rolls. Since a driver’s license number and social security number are not both required to register to vote in Texas, a connection with the Department of Motor Vehicles and election officials to supply accurate information for voter rolls would help mitigate ballot rejections due to insufficient data.
- Supply more funding for elections. Local election officials need help in carrying out their duties in any election year, and especially when implementing the suite of changes underlined in S.B. 1. Creating a better-funded elections ecosystem helps the public understand their options with absentee voting, and election officials receive help from the ability to perform their jobs with ease.
- Create a system to better communicate with voters about ballot return measures. It is crucial to have a system in place to inform voters of new voting procedures after a new law passes. This system must reach voters in all geographical areas and can include many forms of communication such as videos, infographics, text messaging, and more.
The administrative lead up to the March 1 Texas primary is well underway. Mail voting applications are already being processed, and absentee voters will start receiving their ballots in just a few weeks. To prevent this oversight from carrying into the November midterms, lawmakers must rethink this statutory deficiency before the general elections.
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