Texas opens first primary of 2022 under tougher voting rules

FILE - Pam Gaskin speaks about her absentee ballot for the primary election at her home Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Missouri City, Texas.  A federal judge has granted a partial election overhaul in Texas days before the first primary of 2022. The ruling Friday night Feb. 11, 2022, by U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez in San Antonio weakens new rules that make it a crime for election officials to proactively assist voters in obtaining a mail-in ballot.  It orders Texas not to enforce that narrow portion of the law against Harris County, which in 2020 sought to mail more than 2 million Houston voters mail-in ballot applications during the pandemic.  (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)

FILE – Pam Gaskin speaks about her absentee ballot for the primary election at her home Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Missouri City, Texas. A federal judge has granted a partial election overhaul in Texas days before the first primary of 2022. The ruling Friday night Feb. 11, 2022, by U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez in San Antonio weakens new rules that make it a crime for election officials to proactively assist voters in obtaining a mail-in ballot. It orders Texas not to enforce that narrow portion of the law against Harris County, which in 2020 sought to mail more than 2 million Houston voters mail-in ballot applications during the pandemic. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)

PA

Texas began early voting Monday in a rushed rollout of tougher restrictions that saw hundreds of mail-in ballots returned weeks before the country’s first primary in 2022.

The election is the first since Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law sweeping election changes in Texas last fall. How the vote unfolds between now and the March 1 primary has become as much a focal point as the actual races, which include gubernatorial and congressional nominations.

On Monday, hundreds of polling places opened in Texas and no major issues were reported as early voting began.

But hundreds of mail-in ballots and ballot applications returned to Texas in recent weeks represented an awkward start to voting rules that Republicans have tightened across the United States over the past year in name of election security.

In Harris County, officials had to return more than 40% of the first batch of absentee ballots from the Houston area, mostly because they didn’t include the IDs and signatures now required. by Texas law.

“We’re educating voters to hopefully heal the ballots, but voters are being assaulted in Texas,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said Monday on social media.

Secretary of State John Scott, who is overseeing his first election as Texas election chief after being nominated by Abbott, said the problems stem from voters adapting to the new rules.

He expects the May runoffs and November elections to run more smoothly, and said he does not believe the problems so far and the concerns expressed by local officials amount to state failure.

“I don’t know how much extra time – I don’t mean it wouldn’t have been helpful, because it would have been helpful,” Scott said. “But I don’t know if more time solves that problem, because it’s a new process. And I think the new processes, especially for voters who were used to the old process, that’s absolutely a point friction.

Texas is among at least 18 states that will hold elections this year with increased restrictions – a consequence of former President Donald Trump’s repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Republicans dismissed Democrats’ protests that the changes would disenfranchise voters, especially minorities.

But Texas had far less time than any other state to complete the job of changing the way the election was run due to its particularly early primary on March 1 – two months before the next states, Indiana and Ohio, do not go to the polls in May.

Few races on the ballot in Texas are hotly contested. For Republicans, Abbott is heavily favored over a series of far-right challengers in his campaign for a third term, but Attorney General Ken Paxton is facing a tougher primary under the cloud of an FBI investigation.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has a nearly clear path for his party’s gubernatorial nomination. One of the biggest races in South Texas, where Democratic US Representative Henry Cuellar is in a rematch against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros weeks after FBI agents raided his home.

When the League of Women Voters requested thousands of voter registration applications for new US citizens last month, the state said it could not meet the demand due to paper shortages in supply chain after the new law required forms to be updated and reprinted.

Then county election offices reported having to return an unusually high number of absentee ballot applications for not including required identification such as a driver’s license or Social Security number. Now counties say they are returning completed ballots for the same reason.

Voters have the opportunity to correct the ballot as long as it is returned on Election Day, which has left officials waiting to see how many return.

Scott said the number of rejected mail-in ballot applications has fallen to less than 5% this month.

He took the job as Texas Chief Electoral Officer after serving in previous roles under Abbott, but his appointment raised alarm among voting rights groups during his brief stint with Trump’s legal team. who challenged the 2020 election results. Scott backed out of the case after just days and said he does not dispute President Joe Biden winning the election.

Outside San Antonio, Kendall County Elections Administrator Staci Decker said mail-in ballot requests are at an all-time low ahead of the primary in her Republican-majority county that voted for Trump by a margin of 3 to 1 in 2020.

The mostly rural county has for years maintained a list of about 400 voters who receive mail-in ballot applications. But Texas Republicans this year added a ban on government officials proactively sending out mail-in ballots, under threat of felony charges and six months in prison.

“We had 400 people waiting for their applications to come in and they never did,” Decker said. She said her office sent about 500 ballots to voters this year, compared to the 700 to 900 they normally send out.

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Coronado is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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