Members of Congress held a virtual hearing on Thursday to discuss the thousands of rejected mail ballots during the 2022 Texas primary.
Almost 23,000 mail ballots were rejected across 187 Texas counties during the March primary, according to the Associated Press.
Hani Mirza, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project voting rights program, was the first to testify to members of the Committee on House Administration about the mail ballot rejections.
“It pains me to say that my colleagues, our partners and I have observed a severe form of voter suppression and mass disenfranchisement not seen in Texas since the days of Jim Crow,” Mirza said, placing blame for the rejected ballots squarely on Senate Bill 1, a sweeping elections bill passed by Republicans last year that has made it more difficult for Texans to vote.
Citing the AP count, Mirza said the 22,898 rejected mail ballots made up 13 percent of all mail ballots cast during the election. “This is a stark difference from the 1-2 percent rejection rate from previous elections,” he said.
To put the figure into perspective, Mirza said the number of rejected ballots would have been enough to make a deciding difference in multiple key swing states during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
“Stated plainly, the 2022 Texas primary was not a democratic election,” Mirza said.
Mirza said many of the rejections occurred because of the new strict ID requirements for voting by mail. Some voters overlooked the identification field, or filled it out but had their ballots rejected anyways because it did not match their voter registration record.
“Since the 2022 primary was a low turnout election, Texans have not yet experienced the full impact of Senate Bill 1,” Mirza said. “Texans should brace for the full force of Senate Bill 1 during the 2022 midterm election in November, unless Congress takes action.”
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales said Texas has undertaken a series of policies that have made it harder for Latinos to vote.
She shared the story of an elderly couple in Bexar County who applied for mail ballots but were rejected because they had not filled out new voter registration forms.
“These experiences happened all over Texas,” Perales said. “SB 1, predictively and by design, forces the rejection of mail ballot applications and mail ballots when the county doesn’t have the drivers’ license or the social security number of the voter. The only way to fix it is to fill out new paperwork and try again to vote.”
Perales said these restrictions were especially harmful to those with less formal education, less access to technology, or voters with limited English proficiency.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown also testified at the hearing, warning that SB 1 was undermining civic participation in elections in Texas.
Of the 11,602 mail ballots received by Travis County, Brown said around 16 percent of mail ballots were slated for rejection before efforts by the county cured some of the ballot issues and halved the rejection rate to 8 percent. Brown compared that figure to the 2018 primary election (prior to SB 1) where the rejection rate was only 1.7 percent.
The Austin area county judge also said SB 1 had made hiring election workers even more difficult than it already was during the pandemic.
“SB 1 created felony and misdemeanor criminal penalties for these election workers and election administrators,” Brown said.
Under SB 1, election administrations may face a state jail felony if they send out unsolicited mail ballot applications, and election workers could face a Class A misdemeanor if they remove a poll watcher.
“The 2020 election presented election officials with new challenges due to COVID,” Brown said. “Election officials had to come up with last-minute innovations to make voting safe and accessible during a pandemic.”
“SB 1 was a direct result of the legislature targeting these new and successful innovations that we implemented in 2020,” Brown said, referring to drive-thru voting and expanded voting hours, both restricted under SB 1.
Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP State Conference said the driving force behind Senate Bill 1 was demographic change
What we have here is the manifestation of what was designed and intended to limit the minority vote,” Bledsoe said.
Congressional Republicans at the hearing attempted to steer attention from SB 1 to Harris County’s election day debacle that led to more than 10,000 mail-in ballots being uncounted on the evening of the primary. Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria, who has since resigned, said the ballots were not missing but staff were too tired to count them on election night.
Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) asked a Houston Chronicle editorial on the election woes to be submitted to the record, and Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel also testified on the uncounted ballots and other issues on election day.
“There was true voter suppression on March 1, and the blame lies at the feet of the Democrat-controlled Harris County and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and due to the egregious mismanagement by the elections administrator they hired,” Siegel said.