HOUSTON — With less than two days until Texas’ primary election, Cedric and Myrtis Tatterson sat in a community center gym in Houston to fulfill the training required of them as election judges.
Though they have both served as judges in numerous past elections, Tuesday’s primary will be the first since Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature passed a sweeping voting law with provisions that restrict access to the ballot.
Cedric, who said he has been involved in the struggle for voting rights for decades and marched in his youth with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, said he’s dismayed with Texas’ efforts to make voting harder.
“You sent me off to Vietnam 50 years ago to fight for this country, and we go backwards,” said the 74-year-old veteran.
Myrtis said it pains her that all five of their children also live in Texas and have to suffer the consequences of the state’s voter suppression tactics.
Texas’ election on Tuesday will be the first primary contest in the country and will offer a preview for other states on how restrictive new voting laws will affect voter turnout and the administration of elections.
The legislation, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbot in September 2021 in response to unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the 2020 election, survived Democratic lawmakers’ efforts to block it by breaking quorum. The new law includes stricter voter identification requirements that have already caused thousands of vote-by-mail applications and ballots to be rejected across the state.
The legislation also gives more power to partisan poll watchers, which advocates fear will cause confrontations and intimidation at the polls on Election Day. And it places strict restrictions on people who help voters with disabilities, causing concerns that the helpers’ assistance will leave them liable for criminal penalties.
“The problem with this new election law and all the confusion that goes along with it is that voters who are consistent voters probably will continue to vote, but voters who would like to participate may go, ‘This is just too much. Forget it. They obviously don’t want me to vote,’” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.
“That is very concerning to me because in a democracy, we should encourage all eligible voters to participate in an election and that is not what is happening right now,” she added.
Despite the messy rollout of the new law and its disproportionate impact on Texas’ non-white voters, Republican lawmakers in other states are considering replicating aspects in their own states or already have passed their own laws. According to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have enacted 33 laws since the 2020 election that make it harder for people to cast ballots.
“The reason we’re seeing these problems in Texas is because they passed one of those bills and we are the first primary,” said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “If I were living in another state, one of the states that passed a similarly sprawling election rewrite, I would be looking at this and think, ‘This chaos and confusion and disenfranchisement is coming my way in just a few months.’”
New ID requirements
The GOP’s restrictive voting law contains many new measures that will affect the primary, but one of the most consequential has been new identification requirements for mail-in ballots. In Texas, only people over the age of 65 or those who are sick, disabled, or meet a small number of qualifications are permitted to vote by mail.
The new law requires that voters casting a ballot by mail include a state identification number like a Texas driver’s license number (or if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number) on the return envelope of their mail-in ballot application and ballot. The number must match the identification number in the voter’s record.
But problems quickly arose when it became clear that voters don’t necessarily have both possible ID numbers in their voter record and their application or ballot could be rejected if they include the number that’s not on file.
“Absolutely no one is going to remember which number they used,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, explaining that the law has led to “unheard of rates of rejection.”
Myrtis Tatterson said she luckily put both her driver’s license number and Social Security number on her mail-in ballot because she has no recollection of when she registered to vote or which number she used at that time.
Counties across the state reported that they had to reject ballot applications and ballots that were missing ID numbers or that had ID numbers that were not on file.
Harris County, home to Houston, reported an alarmingly high rejection rate for mail ballots. Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria told NBC News that the county had to hire new staff early this year to deal with the surge of confused voters and rejected ballots.
As of Feb. 26, Harris County’s election office said 29 percent of mail ballots have been flagged for issues that if unfixed, would mean the ballot would be rejected.
The office said it has received 37,268 and 10,876 of them have been flagged for corrections. Of those, 10,850 are flagged specifically due to the new ID requirements under the new election law.
The number of potentially rejected ballots is likely to rise as more mail ballots arrive before Election Day, the office said. In past elections, the ballot rejection rate has been between 5 and 10 percent.
More than two weeks before the election, county officials asked the Department of Justice to step in and address the “alarmingly high” rejection rate.
Other populous counties are reporting similarly high rejection rates. Officials in Dallas County reported they had to reject 26 percent of mail-ballots and officials in El Paso County said the rejection rate was at 46 percent because of missing ID numbers.
Advocates said lawmakers were aware that the law could lead to voter confusion and rejected ballots, but moved forward with it anyway.
“Our organization and others pointed out to legislators when the bill was being debated last year that these problems were likely going to present themselves,” said Daniel Griffith, director of policy for the nonpartisan group Secure Democracy.
There is a process for voters to cure the mistakes on their ballot applications and ballots by six days after the election, but the process is confusing for election attorneys, let alone voters. Counties themselves have struggled.
Counties are supposed to notify voters and give them an opportunity to correct the issue on their ballot. If there’s a problem with their ID number, voters should be able to access an online ballot tracking system to fix the ID number on file.
“What we’re hearing is that there are currently problems with that statewide online ballot tracking system,” Griffith said, although he added the problems have not been verified. “I think we can expect, given all the other implementation issues that we’ve seen, that it’s certainly not being implemented to the extent that it needs to be to protect everyone’s voice in democracy.”
The secretary of state’s office has also provided little advice to counties on how to implement the new law.
“Counties didn’t get guidance on how to implement these new rules until very late in the process,” Slattery said.
Partisan poll watchers
Voting advocates are also expressing concerns that the new voting law expanded the power of partisan poll watchers in the polling place and restricted how election officials can control them.
“I don’t mind poll watchers most of the time, but my concern is that there are parties who will use this as a way to intimidate voters,” Chimene said.
Gutierrez explained that Texas has a long history of poll watchers used in discriminatory ways and sent to intimidate voters in Black and Latino communities, especially in the Harris County area.
Last year, Common Cause Texas obtained a leaked video in which the Harris County Republican Party explained its plans for an “Election Integrity Brigade” to “build an army of 10,000 people” to serve as poll watchers and election officials to go from Houston’s white suburbs into Black and Latino communities to monitor the polls.
The GOP official says that “this is where the fraud is occurring.”
Despite Common Cause and other advocacy groups’ concerns, the legislature passed an expansion of power for partisan poll watchers, people who represent particular parties and are permitted to monitor polling places and vote counting.
Gutierrez said he’s worried that poll watchers will be able to walk around polling sites and linger close enough to voters to hear their conversations with clerks or election judges.
Under the new law, it’s a misdemeanor for an election official to turn away an appointed poll watcher. It’s also now unlawful to obstruct a poll watcher from viewing voting or vote counting.
Poll watchers can only be removed from the polling site if an election official observes them directly violating election law.
“The process by which an election judge can kick a poll watcher out of the poll site if they’re being disruptive is now really complicated and the law is full of gray areas,” he said.
“We’re really not sure how it’s going to work, if it’s going to work, if it’s going to allow poll watchers to completely disrupt poll sites and basically shut them down. It’s a lot of things to worry about.”
But advocates said it’s less likely this will be a major issue in the primary because partisan poll watchers may not want to police their own party’s primary, and their concerns are more about the general election.
Voters with disabilities
Texas’ new law also affects people with disabilities and others who need assistance to cast a ballot. There are new regulations governing people who provide assistance, limiting what they can do to just reading and marking the ballots of an individual who cannot read or mark it themselves. They are no longer able to answer a voter’s questions or talk to them about what’s on the ballot.
“There’s a lot of concern about, ‘If I do anything that isn’t strictly one of those things, am I going to go to jail or something?” Slattery said.
The law also limits the League of Women Voters, Chimene said, because the organization is no longer able to go to places like nursing homes to hand out mail-in ballot application forms. She said the group is trying to use alternative methods to help the voters directly, like sending information to nursing homes and assisted living centers for their staff members.
“We’re concerned that’s going to have a chilling effect on voters who are already vulnerable, like voters with disabilities,” Griffith said. “That can already be a difficult process at the polls and all of these new requirements, these new potential criminal charges, are just going to compound that difficulty that these voters face.”