Texas’ new election law (SB1) included for the first time a requirement that mail-in ballots include either the person’s Texas driver’s license number or the last four numbers of their social security number. The requirement was designed to prevent ballot harvesting. A UH/TSU poll last year found that Texans favored the requirement by 64-23 and support serious criminal penalties for ballot harvesting by 77-12. Both were supported by a majority of all ethnic groups and Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
However, the implementation of the new requirement has been bungled by election officials and proved to be a headache for many mail-in voters. The mail-in ballot forms were confusing and there was not a good public information campaign about the new requirement. I was contacted by a number of voters frustrated with the difficulty of getting their mail-in ballot application approved. Several I talked to just gave up and early voted instead.
But even more serious than the inconvenience associated with applying for a mail-in ballot, several media outlets have reported that thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected in the March 1 primary elections. An AP review of the voting results in 187 counties found that over 23,000 mail-in ballots were not counted. That is roughly 13% of all mail-in ballots cast. While I have not been able to find any historical numbers for comparison, several former election officials told me that 1-2% was more typical in previous elections. None of the election officials have released a breakdown on the reasons for the rejections but it is reasonable to assume that the large increase was caused by the new ID requirement.
While it is obviously imperative that we do everything we can to make sure that every legal vote is counted, I think we need to put these numbers in some context. A little over 3 million people voted in the March 1 primaries, so the rejected ballots were about .8% of all the ballots cast.
There has been a pervasive theme in the media that the rejected ballots mostly affected African-American/Democratic voters. Our highly partisan Harris County Election Administrator did an analysis that supposedly supported this thesis. However, the analysis had numerous technical flaws and reeked of confirmation bias.
Harris County is the only county I could find which reported the rejection numbers by party and there was not much difference in the numbers. The Democratic ballot board rejected 3,818 mail-in ballots which was 18% of the total Democratic mail-in ballots. On the Republican side 3,116 mail-in ballots were rejected which was 20% of the total. My guess is that if we ever get complete statewide data, we will find that significantly more Republican mail-in ballots that were rejected than Democratic ones.
I also think it is highly unlikely that had the rejected ballots been counted, it would have changed any of the results. There were a few close races in jurisdictions that had very low turnouts and where a small number of votes could have made a difference. For example, Harold Dutton beat Candis Houston in the Democratic primary for House District 142 by 216 votes. But even in that race, for the rejected ballots to have made a difference, 5% of all rejected ballots in the Democratic primary would have to have been cast in that district and all of them would have to have been cast for the challenger. I suppose that is theoretically possible, but is very unlikely.1
But even if the rejected ballots had little impact in this election, this needs to be fixed before the November election. There will probably be 3-4 times as many voters in the November election. So, we could be looking at as many as 100,000 mail-in ballot being rejected. That is simply unacceptable and will only further serve to undermine the public’s already shaken faith in our elections.
I also have serious doubts about whether the new ID requirement will actually do much to prevent ballot harvesting. Although I do not believe ballot harvesting is conducted at a scale to effect large elections, it is a real problem and certainly can, and probably has, affected some races with low turnouts. More on that topic soon.
Note 1 – State law requires that the rejected ballots be retained for 22 months. If a candidate believed the rejected ballots affected the outcome, the candidate can file an election contest and request that the court re-examine the rejected ballots.