‘It’s just a mess’: Texas election officials and suffrage advocates face mounting challenges under restrictive new election laws

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

“Unfortunately, we had a Republican legislature so determined to make it harder to vote that there was simply no thought about implementation,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. “On every level, it’s just a mess.”

But Secretary of State John Scott’s office brushed off criticism. Sam Taylor, Scott’s director of communications, told CNN the office in preparation for the election 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 help and assist the counties in carrying out this election,” Scott, an appointee of GOP Governor Greg Abbot, said during an interview. a meeting Thursday with Bexar County officials.

CNN has repeatedly reached out by phone and email to Republican State Senator Bryan Hughes, who sponsored SB 1, and GOP Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a staunch supporter of the election law changes, to comments. Neither official responded.

Reject requests to vote by mail

The new law has already led to election officials rejecting hundreds of mail-in ballot 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 registration card.

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

The problem has become more serious now that election officials are prohibited from helping voters navigate the mail-in ballot process.

Dana DeBeauvoir, the now-retired Travis County Clerk, at a press conference last month highlighted the legal limitations facing election officials, saying the law prohibits clerks from sending, promote or do anything to help a voter vote by mail.

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

She noted that Scott – who has ties to former President Donald Trump’s attempt to challenge the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania – has been unhelpful and difficult to reach at times.

Taylor, Scott’s spokesperson, pushed back on that criticism, saying the office has dedicated legal staff to answer questions from election officials.

“If the county election officials have questions, they can call our office. They can call our chief electoral officer, our chief legal officer, and answer those questions pretty quickly,” he said.

Taylor also noted that Scott’s office sent a comprehensive 28-page legal guide to correcting defects on ballots by mail under SB 1 in late January. mail-order was 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 learn about the new law. Gutierrez said attorneys also suggest voters include both ID numbers on their application to ensure they won’t be rejected.

Applications sent to the wrong office

In one of the largest counties in the state, absentee ballot applications were submitted to the wrong office.

Bexar County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark told CNN she received hundreds of ballot requests by mail — an unusual occurrence for an office that hasn’t handled voting in more than two decades.

Bexar, home to San Antonio, is run by the administrator of elections, not the clerk.

“It was very alarming because right now there is so much vote suppression. There are so many dodgy things about voting by mail, that I didn’t even think I was going to have problems like this here,” Clark said.

Clark said she was able to forward the nominations to the correct person, Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen. But the process is slightly complicated and time-consuming. Clark said she had to keep a detailed tracking log of applications from the time they were received, and then notify Callanen’s office of any new applications received so they could be retrieved.

Clark said she feared voters would be disenfranchised.

“If we are by accident or by mistake, we mislead them, then all we do is suppress the voters… I don’t care what they vote for. But we have to make sure we provide them with the right information,” she said.

The root of the problem appears to be a letter sent by Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales that contained the wrong address for sending nominations.

A campaign spokesperson called it an error, saying the mail was sent to all eligible voters in the sprawling Gonzales district.

The spokesperson said that “they don’t want anyone sending the ballot request to the wrong place” and received about 90 calls about it.

Temporary shortage of voter cards

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

Voting rights groups have in turn threatened to sue the state if it does not provide the necessary registrations.

Texas is one of the few states that does not 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.

“The voter registration services of organizations such as the League of Women Voters are an essential part of a fair and accessible democracy. We call on the office of Secretary (sic) Scott to do whatever it takes to respond at the request for Texans to be on the voter rolls,” Grace said. 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 mailing of application forms, according to Taylor. But the issue is being closely watched by lawyers.

A spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters of Texas told CNN that while some groups have obtained 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 solve the problems, a range 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 distributing 150,000 in the weeks following the primary and distributing the remaining nominations before the general election.

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

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misrepresented the identification requirements for absentee ballot applications. Voters must provide an identification number that matches their registration records.

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