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Texas officials say they're rejecting fewer mail ballots than the primary's big spike

A Harris County election worker prepares mail-in ballots to be sent to Texas voters ahead of the 2020 election. After a GOP-backed law in 2021 changed rules for mail ballots, rejections spiked in this year's state primaries.

Local election officials in Texas are reporting a drop in the percentage of mail ballots that have so far been flagged for rejection during the ongoing midterm elections, as compared with a spike earlier this year.

During the state's primary in March, state officials said 24,636 mail-in ballots were rejected in that election. That's a 12.38% rejection rate — far higher than in previous contests. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Texas' mail ballot rejection rate during the 2020 general election was 0.8% and it was 1.5% in 2018.

The surge in the rejection rate in March followed a voting law passed by Republicans in the state legislature in 2021 that created new ID requirements for mail ballots. Local officials said confusion created by the law, known as Senate Bill 1, tripped up many voters. In many cases, voters completely missed the field on the ballot return envelope that requires either a partial Social Security number or driver's license number.

According to the Texas secretary of state's office, however, the ongoing general election isn't experiencing the same high rate of ballot rejections so far.

State officials have reported that 1.78% of mail ballots returned to county election officials have been rejected so far — 8,771 ballots out of 491,399, as of Friday afternoon.

About 314,000 ballots still had to be processed by local officials, according to the secretary of state. Voters have until Election Day on Tuesday to turn in mail ballots.

Many ballots that have been flagged for rejection will be remedied before voting ends next week, because SB 1 also created a ballot cure process in Texas. That means voters will have an opportunity to fix their mistakes.

Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, attributes the decrease in the mail ballot rejection rate to updates to the return ballot in some Texas counties, as well as additional voter information included in mail ballots by local officials.

He says various voter education campaigns following the March primary have also helped. Taylor said his office, along with county election officials, focused on educating older voters in the state about new ID requirements. In Texas, voters over 65, voters with disabilities, people out of town and people in jail but not convicted can cast a mail ballot.

Taylor also said rejection rates were always likely to improve as "voters got used to" the new mail ballot process.

"I think it is moving in the right direction and more education never hurts," he said.

Harris County — which is home to Houston, and is the state's most populous and diverse county — so far has a higher rejection rate than the state average.

According to Harris County officials, about 9% of returned mail ballots were flagged with a rejection or exception code, as of Wednesday. Officials said most of those preliminary ballots were flagged specifically with ID issues, which are a result of the state's new voting law.

Chris Davis — the elections supervisor in suburban Williamson County, north of Austin — reported this week that the rejection rate in his county has hovered around 3 to 4%. He said he thinks some voters "have a couple of elections under their belt" under the new rules at this point, so rejection rates are slightly lower. During the March primary, officials there rejected 11.5% of returned mail ballots.

"We are confident that it continues to improve," Davis said. "We are pleased with how smooth things are generally going."

Voting rights advocates warned state lawmakers that SB 1 would create confusion among voters and lead to a higher rejection rate in the state, even with a ballot cure process in place. Multiple lawsuits have been filed citing the federal Voting Rights Act, but most of the law has largely stayed in effect.

Advocates were also particularly worried that this year's general election would actually have more issues than the March primary, because it was expected that turnout would be high. However, so far, early voting turnout in Texas has been significantly lower than 2018 and other recent elections.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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