Bexar County elections officials say they have rejected as many as 22% of mail-in ballots from the March primary election.
Bexar County elections officials rejected 22% of mail-in ballots — and counting — from the March primary election. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County rejected mail-in ballots at roughly ten times the rate it did before the passage of the state’s new voting law last year.

Before Senate Bill 1 took effect, with its host of changes and restrictions to voting in Texas, roughly 2% to 3% of mail-in ballots were rejected in local elections, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen told the San Antonio Report.

In the March primary, as many as 22% have been rejected thus far, a figure she expects to increase once all the late, ineligible ballots are counted.

The county received a total of 18,336 mail-in ballots in the primary, and has had to reject 4,197 of them, most for “technical issues” associated with the new law, Callanen said.

One of the biggest issues was the new requirement that voters to provide, on both their vote-by-mail application and the ballot, their driver’s license number or Social Security number — critically, they must choose the same number for both.

If a voter wrote in different numbers, or a number not tied to them in the state’s system, the ballot was rejected. Some voters left that space blank, others chose the wrong number, or the state system had it wrong, Callanen said.

Making it even harder, the new portion of the form that asked for the voter’s Texas driver’s license number or the last four of their social was “in the smallest print possible,” Callanen said.

In order to fix, or “cure,” a ballot, the elections department sends it back through the post office to the voter to request changes. If there’s not enough time to mail it back and forth, the department tries to notify the voter by phone or email about the error, giving the voter a chance to come in person to the elections office to meet the curing deadline.

Corrected mail ballots are still arriving, she said, but “it’s too late. Now we can’t count them. … We had to have them back in our possession by Monday at 5 p.m.”

Easier to vote or voter suppression?

Bexar County joined counties across the state that saw higher rejection rates in the primary.

“Heading into primary election day [last] Tuesday, counties reported initial rejection rates anywhere between 8% to 30%, with the ID requirements tripping up a significant share of voters in counties large and midsize, red and blue,” the Texas Tribune reported last week.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican lawmakers have said the new rules would make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” in the wake of claims that voter fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election. To date, there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

James Slattery, senior staff attorney on the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the new voting provisions were designed to suppress the vote.

“Voting in person, or coming in person to the clerk’s office is obviously unavailable to people who are voting by mail because they’re outside of Texas, or because they have a disability and can’t leave their home easily,” he said.

Slattery called the curing options “byzantine,” defeating the entire purpose of mail-in voting. Also, many voters are unaware of the Secretary of State’s new website that explains the new processes, he said, as the state has done a poor job of voter outreach and education.

Senate Bill 1, which was approved last year, expanded early voting hours in rural counties, but banned 24-hour voting. It’s also now illegal for public officials to promote voting by mail, though political parties are still allowed to send out applications. Election offices can send a mail-in ballot application to someone only if it is requested by that individual. Previously, a voter could request multiple applications for their household.

For instance, when a mother called the Bexar County Elections Department last month, she could not request one on behalf of her disabled son who can’t speak, Callanen said. “You can only send one to whoever requested it.”

She fears that the whole experience will disincentivize mail-in voters from even bothering to vote.

“[The voters are] just going to think we’re fools,” she said. The March primary election makes November 2020, when it took days longer than normal to reconcile final vote numbers, “look like a picnic.”

Slattery agrees.

“This high of a rejection rate is lethal for democracy,” Slattery said. “If your ballot was rejected even though you are an eligible voter, it’s natural for you to think, ‘Well, the government doesn’t care about my vote, they don’t want my vote, they don’t want me to participate in democracy.’ And that lack of confidence in the election system or loss of faith is every bit as damaging as the actual disenfranchisement [of voter access].”

The Texas Civil Rights Project joined the ACLU in a lawsuit that sought to block the bill. Their argument, which ultimately failed, was that Senate Bill 1 violated numerous provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution.

Slattery called for the Secretary of State to ramp up public education and to make the process more streamlined for voters — but long term, the law must be repealed, he believes.

Republican leaders told the Associated Press that voters simply face a learning curve under the new rules and will adapt, which will reduce rejection rates.

“It’s the first round of it, so it may take a little education moving forward,” said Rick Barnes, the GOP chairman of Tarrant County.

Preparing voters for upcoming elections

Voters have two more chances to get it right very soon. The primary runoff election on May 24 will include several county, state and federal races, including Bexar County judge, state House District 122, U.S. Congressional District 28, and State Board of Education, district 1.

Texas voters will also get the chance to reduce their property tax bills in the state’s constitutional amendment election on May 7.

That’s not much time to educate voters who may have had their mail-in ballots rejected, Callanen said.

“We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to reach out to those people to make sure that they get a ballot for May 7, that they get a ballot for May 24 without them being frustrated.”

Though she still plans to retire before the next presidential election in 2024, Callanen said the “mass chaos” this month makes her want to stick around: “I want to take care of my voters. I need to see this through.”

After more than 2,500 late mail and provisional ballots were counted this week, the elections office was able to finalize the two Democratic races too close to call on election night.

Incumbent County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark eked out a slim majority, 50.21%, over Rachel Garcia Cavazos to secure the Democratic nomination in that race; she’ll face Republican Richard A. Gold in November.

In the district clerk Democratic primary race, Gloria Martinez will face Christine “Chris” Castillo in the May runoff.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org