AUSTIN, TX (AP) – A sweeping new Texas election law passed by Republican lawmakers last year following dramatic protests is once again drawing fire, even before some of the most controversial restrictions and changes take effect ahead of the first primary of the state in the country.
Thousands of Texans – including some US citizens – have received letters saying they have been flagged as potential noncitizens who could be kicked off the voter rolls.
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And this week, local election officials said hundreds of mail-in ballot applications were being rejected for not including required new information.
“It’s just a bad situation on many levels,” said James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, one of several voting rights groups that have sued the state over the new law.
The Texas law was endorsed last year by Republicans, who joined party colleagues in at least 18 states, including Florida, Georgia and Arizona, in enacting new voting restrictions since the elections in 2020, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The GOP’s nationwide campaign to tighten election laws has been driven in part by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the election, not President Joe Biden.
Democrats have vigorously opposed — including quitting and blocking the Legislature, warning it could disenfranchise countless voters, especially blacks, Latinos and Asians. Many of its provisions, such as expanded powers for partisan poll watchers, do not come into effect until after the election. But Democrats and civil rights groups say what has happened so far is alarming.
First, Texas sent letters to more than 11,000 voters warning them that their registrations will be voided unless they prove to their local election office that they are citizens. More than 2,000 registrations ended after voters failed to turn up, according to the office of the Texas secretary of state. But some of those who received the warning letters were citizens.
Monty Tew, a 52-year-old man born in Texas, said he did not understand why he received the letter asking him to prove his citizenship. He said he paid $30 to request a copy of his birth certificate, which he then sent a photo of to the county as proof of citizenship and was soon told the issue was resolved.
“I feel lucky it wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t that bad,” said Tew, of Round Rock, a town outside of Austin. “But I can imagine how it can be a much bigger flogging for someone else maybe, if they didn’t have their hands on the technology or if they were paying someone $30 to get something that was a waste of time, money and effort could be a problem.”
Then this week, election administrators in some of Texas’ largest counties, which are run by Democrats, began sounding the alarm about hundreds of mail-in ballot requests they had to reject for noncompliance. strict new provisions.
The 76-page law contains a new requirement that the voter must include either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on mail-in ballot applications, or the number of a document state-issued ID.
Counties then match these numbers to their records before sending out an actual ballot.
Texas already had some of the most restrictive mail-in voting rules in the nation and was one of only a handful of states that did not expand mail-in voting in 2020 during the pandemic.
On Friday, Harris County officials said they rejected more than 200 of 1,200 applications from Houston-area voters.
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In Austin, county election officials estimated the refusal rate at around 50%.
“It’s definitely a red flag,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s election administrator. “At this point, to be so low in the number of applications and have a rejection rate of 20% for the primaries? It really worries me. »
The secretary of state’s office said in a statement Friday that counties should check with it on how to properly discard mail-in ballots. He previously said the letters warning voters they might lose their right to vote were sent as part of the implementation of the new election law.
This measure includes provisions establishing a procedure to comply with a settlement of a 2019 lawsuit settlement during the last time Texas tried to weed out non-citizen voters and ended up threatening to also revoke the registration of large numbers of US citizens.
“Voters who do not provide proof of citizenship to their county voter registration office within 30 days of receiving notice of review will have their registration revoked, with the possibility of reinstatement if the voter subsequently provides proof of citizenship, including at the polling station,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office.
Of the 2,327 voters whose registration was canceled through the process, 278 were confirmed as non-citizens, Taylor said.
But civil rights groups say the state is not taking the right steps to ensure that American citizens are not caught up in the process. The state is supposed to report only people who identified themselves as non-citizens on their driver’s license after registering to vote.
But it also catches some like Harish Vyalla, 35, of Austin, who said he has voted in the county at least twice since becoming a US citizen in 2013.
“I had no concerns because I know I am a citizen with proper documentation, but I was surprised because no one had asked me in the past,” Vyalla said, adding that he had took about a month to preserve his right to vote. “The government should already have all this evidence and documents in hand.”
Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, helped draft the settlement for the 2019 case.
She said state officials were clearly not following her and preparing for another trial.
Perales said Texas voters should prepare for a possible difficult voting experience as the law’s provisions go into full effect in the March 1 primary.
“Texans would be well served to know their rights when they go to the polls, because I think there will be confusion and doubt for a lot of voters,” Perales said.
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