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‘It’s just a mess’: Texas election officials and voting rights advocates face mounting challenges under new restrictive voting law

<i>Brandon Bell/Getty Images</i><br/>People display signs during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31
Getty Images
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
People display signs during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31

By Kelly Mena, CNN

Less than a year after Republican lawmakers pushed through a restrictive voting bill in Texas, election officials there are facing mounting challenges in implementing new voting procedures in time for the upcoming primaries.

Officials are conducting their first election under SB 1, a sweeping overhaul that, among other provisions, restricts the hours that counties can offer early voting and bans election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in voting applications.

The voting changes were signed into law in September, leaving officials less than six months to familiarize themselves and voters with the changes in time for the March 1 primary. Issues, from the rejection of mail-in ballot applications to a temporary voter registration card shortage, have since cropped up ahead of early voting starting on February 14 and a February 18 mail-in ballot application deadline.

“Unfortunately, we had a Republican legislature so determined to make it harder to vote that there just was not any thought given to implementation,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. “At every level, this is just a mess.”

But the office of Secretary of State John Scott has pushed back against the criticism. Sam Taylor, Scott’s communications director, told CNN the office in preparation for the election has held seminars and sent mass emails to help officials navigate the new law.

“We are a nonpartisan office, our job as public servants is to assist and aid the counties in getting this election done,” Scott, an appointee of GOP Gov. Greg Abbot, said in a meeting Thursday with officials from Bexar County.

CNN reached out multiple times through phone and email to Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who sponsored SB 1, and GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a strong supporter of the election law changes, for comment. Neither official responded.

Rejecting mail-in voting applications

The new law has already led to election officials rejecting hundreds of mail-in voting applications now that voters must include either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number on the application. The identification number used must match one of the numbers on the voter’s registration record.

“The rushed process and lack of guidance from the state to implement these new voting laws has been to the detriment of voters,” Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria said in a statement to CNN.

The problem has been made more severe now that election officials are banned from helping voters navigate the mail-in voting process.

Dana DeBeauvoir, the now-retired Travis County clerk at a press conference last month, pointed to the legal limitations facing election officials, saying the law prohibits clerks from sending, promoting or doing anything to assist a voter with a ballot by mail.

“I can’t give them a lot of information,” DeBeauvoir said in January before leaving office after more than 20 years.

She noted that Scott — who has ties to former President Donald Trump’s attempt to challenge the 2020 Pennsylvania election results — has not been helpful and at times difficult to reach.

Taylor, Scott’s spokesman, pushed back against this criticism, saying that the office has dedicated legal staff to answer questions from elections officials.

“If county election officials have questions, they can call our office. They’re able to call our director of elections, our legal director and answer those questions on a pretty timely basis,” he said.

Taylor also noted that Scott’s office sent out a 28-page comprehensive legal guidance in late January on correcting defects on ballots by mail under SB 1. As of February 4, the rejection rate of mail-in ballot applications has been 4.7%, according to Scott’s office.

Common Cause Texas, like other local groups, has set up a hotline and is calling on voters to educate themselves on the new law. Gutierrez said advocates are also suggesting voters include both ID numbers on their application to ensure they aren’t rejected.

Applications going to the wrong office

In one of the state’s largest counties, mail-in ballot applications have been submitted to the wrong office.

Bexar County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark told CNN that she has been receiving hundreds of applications to vote by mail — an unusual occurrence for an office that hasn’t handled voting in over two decades.

Bexar, home to San Antonio, is handled by the elections administrator and not the clerk.

“It was very alarming because right now there’s so much voting suppression. So many questionable things about voting by mail, that I didn’t even think I was going to have any issues like this,” said Clark.

Clark said she has been able to get the applications to the right person, elections administrator Jacquelyn Callanen. But the process is slightly complicated and time-consuming. Clark said she has to keep a detailed tracking log of the applications from the moment they are received and then inform Callanen’s office of any new applications that come in so they can be picked up.

Clark said she’s worried voters could get disenfranchised.

“If we are by accident, or by mistake, we’re misleading them, then all we’re doing is suppressing the voters…I don’t care what they vote for. But we need to make sure that we provide them with the correct information,” she said.

The root of the issue seems to be a mailer sent by Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales that contained the wrong address for mailing applications.

A campaign spokesperson called it a mistake, saying the mailer was sent to all eligible voters in Gonzales’s massive district.

The spokesperson said that “they don’t want anyone to mail in the ballot application to the wrong place” and have received roughly 90 calls about the issue.

Temporary voter registration card shortage

Texas’ deadline to register to vote passed last week, but the date was marred with widespread concern when Scott’s office announced two weeks earlier that it was experiencing a shortage of voter registration cards.

Voting rights groups in turn threatened to sue the state if it didn’t provide the needed registrations.

Texas is one of only a handful of states that don’t offer online voter registration. A total of 42 states and the District of Columbia offer online registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Voter registration services from organizations like the League of Women Voters are a vital component of a fair and accessible democracy. We call on the (sic) Secretary Scott’s office to do whatever it takes to meet the demand in voter registration for Texans,” Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said in a statement in late January.

Eventually, the state was able to get a new shipment of application forms, according to Taylor. But the issue is being closely watched by advocates.

A spokesperson for the League of Women Voters of Texas told CNN that though some groups had gotten the necessary forms, they are “watching to see if the Secretary of State’s office will continue to limit forms in the future.”

In an attempt to resolve the issues, a spectrum of groups and officials have stepped up to fill the void.

Texas Democrats, ahead of the deadline, announced an effort to print and distribute half a million voter registration cards. Angelica Kaufman, the Democrats’ senior communications director, said the party plans to start by distributing 150,000 in the weeks after the primary and distribute the remaining applications in the lead-up to the general election.

Meanwhile, a group of 40 lawmakers from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee offered to help Texas get through the “paper shortage.” The group of Democrats said they “would like to extend an offer to the people of Texas to assist with the procurement of paper for the purpose of printing applications to register to vote.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the ID requirements for mail-in voting applications. Voters must provide an ID number that matches their registration records.

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