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Increase in Texas mail-in ballot rejections, with signs of racial gap

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More than 18,000 voters in Texas’ most populous counties had their mail-in ballots discarded in the state’s primary elections this month, according to a review of election data by The New York Times, an increase in rejected votes that disproportionately affected blacks in the state’s largest county and exposed the impact of new election regulations passed by Republicans last year.

In Harris County, which includes Houston and is the most populous county in the state, areas with large black populations were 44% more likely to have rejected ballots than heavily white areas, according to a review of census survey data and election results by Harris County Election. administrator’s office.

The analysis also found that black residents were the largest racial group in six of the nine ZIP codes with the most vote denials in the county.

The thousands of vote denials and the racial disparity of denials in Harris County provide the clearest evidence yet that key election legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature last year prevented a significant number of people to vote.

The rejection rate in the most populous counties in the state was around 15%. By comparison, in the 2020 general election, nearly one million absentee ballots were cast statewide and just under 9,000 were rejected, a rejection rate of approximately 1%.

Figures from Harris County, which has a population of more than 4.7 million, also appeared to back up Democratic warnings that black voters would be hit hardest by the new regulations.

The Texas law was part of a wave of similar ballot measures passed by Republicans last year. The early effects in Texas could foreshadow future elections in the other 18 states, including major battlegrounds like Georgia, which tightened their voting rules after the 2020 election.

“We have concrete evidence of the impact this is having primarily on people of color,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, the second black mayor in the city’s history and a Democrat, said in an interview. “People’s right to vote is taken away. It’s almost like the 21st century version of capitation, so to speak, when they were asked, ‘How many bubbles are in this bar?’ »

The number of Texas voters who voted by mail is relatively small, as only those over 65 or with a verified excuse can vote absentee. But if high rates of rejected ballots carry over to future general elections, which have a much higher turnout, the overall effect on voting could be far greater.

The vast majority of ballots were discarded due to rules established last year that required voters to provide their driver’s license number or partial Social Security number. Many did not complete the section of their ballot that asked for the ID number or had a different ID on file with election officials, and their ballot was rejected. Texas gives voters a limited window of time to resolve issues with their ballots in a process called “healing,” but the Times found that more than 18,000 were never resolved. (Voters could bring their rejected ballots, if they received them in time, to a polling place to vote in person.)

Because Texas counties decide to hold a joint primary or separate party primaries, and only certain counties report separate partisan turnout totals, it is difficult to gauge any partisan benefit from ballot rejections. In Harris County, for example, more than 3,800 rejected ballots were in the Democratic primary and about 3,100 rejected in the Republican primary. But the rejection rate for Republican votes in Harris County was higher, at 20 percent, than the rate for Democratic votes, which was 17 percent.

In Denton County, in the populous suburb of Dallas, 638 ballots were discarded in the Republican primary, or 20% of mail-in votes cast, and 262 were discarded in the Democratic primary, or about 10% .

Last year, Republicans in the Legislature announced that the voting bill would strengthen election security and argued that it would expand access to the ballot.

“By making it easier to vote and harder to cheat, we’ve dramatically improved elections across Texas,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who championed the law, said when it passed.

But the sharp rise in ballot rejections, coupled with what Texas election officials said was a flood of voters calling them with questions, suggests the state’s revised election process has confused thousands of voters and threatened to deprive thousands more.

Mr. Patrick did not respond to questions about the increase in ballot rejections and the racial disparity of rejected ballots in Harris County. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the bill’s lead sponsor, also did not respond to questions. A spokeswoman for Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican seeking re-election this year, posed questions to the Secretary of State.

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said in a statement that the office devoted a “significant part” of its voter education campaign to identification requirements for the mail-in ballot process, including including billboards, radio advertisements and social media posts.

“We are confident that we will have all the information we need to apply lessons learned in the primary to an even more robust voter education campaign ahead of the general election in November,” Taylor said.

But local election officials, who are prohibited by the new law from promoting mail-in voting, said the voter education effort missed the mark.

“Tell me how many seniors are on Twitter and I’ll tell you how many have actually been helped,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s election administrator.

Ms Longoria said while she expected higher rejection rates due to the new law, she found the emerging racial disparity ‘shocking’ and said she validated the arguments of rights groups civics that the law would have an outsized impact on communities of color. (She will step down this year after her office failed to count 10,000 ballots in the primary election.)

Because demographic data is not part of county voter rolls, the Harris County Office of Elections analyzed demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in the top 30 ZIP codes that recorded the majority of rejection of ballot papers.

The Times counted rejected ballots in the 13 Texas counties with more than 400,000 residents. The Associated Press conducted a broader survey in 187 counties and found nearly 23,000 mail-in ballots were rejected.

Ms Longoria added that many voters whose ballot papers were rejected were unlikely to have been able to vote in person, meaning they were most likely disenfranchised.

“It’s not some kind of luxury or benefit for people that they’re engaging in,” Ms Longoria said of the mail-in ballots. “For some voters, it’s their only option to vote.”

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Houston.