AUSTIN, Texas – Texas began early voting Monday under a rushed rollout of tougher restrictions that has resulted in hundreds of mail ballots getting sent back weeks before the nation's first primary of 2022.
The election is the first since Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last fall signed into law sweeping changes to Texas' elections. How voting goes between now and the March 1 primary has become as much a focal point as the actual races, which include nominations for governor and Congress.
On Monday, hundreds of polling sites opened in Texas and there were no reports of major issues as early voting got underway.
But hundreds of returned mail ballots and ballot applications in Texas in recent weeks had amounted to a clumsy debut of voting rules that Republicans have tightened across the U.S. over the past year in the name of election security.
In Harris County officials aid more than 40% of the first batch of mail ballots to come in from the Houston area had to be sent back, mostly because they did not include required identification and signatures now mandated under Texas law.
“We’re informing voters to hopefully cure ballots but voters are under assault in Texas,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, posted on social media Monday.
Secretary of State John Scott, who is overseeing his first election as Texas' elections chief after being appointed by Abbott, said the issues were the result of voters adapting to new rules.
He anticipates the May runoffs and November elections will run smoother, and said he does not think the issues so far and concerns expressed by local officials amount to a failure by the state.
“I don’t know how more time — I don’t want to say it wouldn’t have been helpful, because it would have been helpful,” Scott said. “But I don’t know that more time fixes that issue, because it’s a new process. And I think new processes, especially to those voters who were used to the old process, that absolutely is a friction point.”
Texas is among at least 18 states that will hold elections this year with heightened restrictions — an outgrowth of former President Donald Trump's repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Republicans have rejected Democrats' protests that the changes would disenfranchise voters, particularly minorities.
But Texas had far less time than any other state to complete the work of changing how elections are run because of its especially early primary March 1 — two months before the next states, Indiana and Ohio, go to the polls in May.
Few of the races on the ballot in Texas are hotly contested. For Republicans, Abbott is heavily favored over a crop of far right challengers in his campaign for a third term, but Attorney General Ken Paxton is fighting a tougher primary under the cloud of an FBI investigation.
Democrat Beto O'Rourke has an almost clear path for his party's nomination for governor. One of the biggest races in South Texas, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar is in a rematch against a progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, weeks after FBI agents searched his home.
When the League of Women Voters last month requested thousands of voter registration applications for new U.S. citizens, the state said it could not fulfill the request because of paper supply chain shortages after the new law required the forms to be updated and reprinted.
Then, county election offices reported they were having to send back an unusually high number of mail ballot applications for not including required identification such as a driver's license or Social Security number. Now, counties say they are sending back completed ballots for the same reason.
Voters have a chance to correct the ballot as long as it is returned by Election Day, which has left officials waiting to see how many come back.
Scott said the number of rejected mail ballot applications had fallen to below 5 percent by this month.
He took the job as Texas' chief election officer after serving previous roles under Abbott, but his appointment raised alarms among voting rights groups over his brief stint with Trump's legal team that challenged the 2020 election results. Scott withdrew from the case after only a few days and said he does not dispute that President Joe Biden won the election.
Outside San Antonio, Kendall County Elections Administrator Staci Decker said mail ballot applications are at a low ahead of the primary in her overwhelmingly Republican county that voted for Trump by a margin of 3-to-1 in 2020.
The mostly rural county has for years kept a list of about 400 voters who are sent mail ballot applications. But Texas Republicans added a prohibition this year on government officials proactively sending out mail ballots, under the threat of felony charges and six months in jail.
“We had 400 people that just sat there waiting for their application to come and they never did,” said Decker. She said her office has sent about 500 ballots to voters this year, down from the 700 to 900 they normally mail.
Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.