AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Republicans promised new voting rules would make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.” But as the dust settled Wednesday on the nation’s first primary, voters in both parties had their ballots caught by the changes.
By and large, Texas' primary that put the 2022 midterm election season in full swing saw no significant issues at polling locations Tuesday under typically low turnout. But although most races were decided by Wednesday, counties that had rejected thousands of mail ballots for not complying with Texas' strict new election law still do not know how many will end up counting.
That answer is still likely days away, and for Republicans who rushed to put in place new voting laws across the U.S. after the 2020 elections, the stakes go beyond Texas as the GOP pushes back against accusations of trying to suppress likely Democratic voters. But there is little question the changes in Texas caused hurdles for even Republican voters, who accounted for roughly 40 percent of all mail-in ballots.
“Texans are the ones feeling the impact now, but unfortunately this is just a preview of what could happen in other states,” said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has sued Texas over the law.
Republicans broadly expressed satisfaction with the debut of the tougher rules and looked ahead to November, when another provision under Texas' sweeping new law will give expanded powers to partisan poll watchers.
The rate of rejected ballots around Houston was nearly 30% — some 11,000 ballots — as polls opened Tuesday. Harris County is a Democratic stronghold, but ballots for both Republican and Democratic voters were flagged for not having the required new identification, said Leah Shah, a spokeswoman for the county elections office.
Texas Secretary of State John Scott, an appointee of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and others in the GOP have said the rejections were likely a matter of most voters being unfamiliar with the new requirements and would become less of an issue over time.
“We looked at it as the fact that the law is definitely working,” said Rick Barnes, the GOP chairman of Tarrant County, the largest red county in Texas. “It's the first round of it, so it may take a little education moving forward. But again, I think that those percentages came down and we’re comfortable with the reality of it all.”
One struggle for both parties in Texas was finding enough poll workers to keep voting locations open and moving. Parties are responding for staffing their own primaries in Texas, and large counties from the Texas border to Dallas had locations that were unable to open on time because of having not enough poll workers.
Barnes compared the problem of finding poll workers right now to employers struggling to fill jobs but said he expected to have enough poll watchers, which is generally a lesser time commitment, for “every single hour, every single poll” come November.
The new rules in Texas also banned drive-thru voting, 24-hour polling locations and prohibits elections officials from proactively sending mail ballot applications to voters. Many of the measures targeted Harris County, where just after polls closed Tuesday, Scott's office announced delays in vote counts. Harris County disputed that delays in reporting were a concern.
The law was signed last fall by Abbott, who GOP voters overwhelmingly nominated again. Overall, there were few surprises in Texas' primary, although one came Wednesday when Republican Rep. Van Taylor abruptly dropped his reelection bid after admitting to having an affair about a year ago.
David Becker, a former attorney in the Justice Department who is now executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research Center, said the Texas law created unnecessary redundancies that tripped up voters.
“Navigating the election process is not supposed to be a game of gotcha," he said.
In the Dallas suburbs, Collin County on Wednesday reported that 800 of more than 5,300 received ballots had been flagged for rejection, mostly over signature and identification requirements.
Bruce Sherbet, the elections administrator in Collin County, said it will be a question of how many are fixed in time to help the county determine how much more education is needed for voters to lower rejection rates in the future.
“It went as well as we could expect,” Sherbet said.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.