AUSTIN (KXAN) — A back-and-forth between Texas elections officials over “high” levels of rejected mail-in ballot applications has left advocates worried about the impact on elderly or disabled voters.
Molly Broadway, a training and technical support specialist for voting rights for Disability Rights Texas, said she was bracing for an influx of calls to their voter hotline after the Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir announced her office had rejected as many as 50% of the applications they had received.
In a press conference on Tuesday, DeBeauvoir clarified that after a review, they believe about 27% of applications have been rejected. She blamed the new election law passed by lawmakers last fall and slammed the new restrictions, calling them “voter suppression.”
In response, Texas Secretary of State John Scott, “Travis County made the decision to reject these mail ballot applications before contacting our office. We call on Travis County to immediately review and re-examine the mail ballot applications in question to determine whether they were processed in accordance with state law, with the goal of reinstating and minimizing any disruption to eligible voters who have properly submitted their application for ballot by mail.”
DeBeauvoir emphasized the restrictions placed on elections officials when communicating with voters in Tuesday’s press conference, and she also stated “For people with disabilities, this is a big hurdle to get over.”
In addition to the new requirements for ID numbers on mail-in ballot applications, SB1 also increases potential criminal penalties for people who assist voters. They are required to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship to that voter and must recite an expanded oath stating they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter. They must limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”
Broadway said they planned to focus on educating and empowering voters to know the rules and changes under the new law.
“We are seeing a lot of hurdles that voters need to jump through, and not a lot of tools to help individual individuals jump through those hurdles. Or our goal is just to make sure voters know that they can still cast their ballot,” she said.
She also said their group was worried about how elections workers or poll watchers might respond to actions they perceive as breaking the law, which are actually allowed.
“Different needs require different forms of assistance,” she said. “They can misinterpret a proper form of assistance as illegal assistance.
The U.S. Justice Department has sued the state over these provisions, writing in the lawsuit that limits on assistance could affect those with disabilities.
Proponents of the legislation argued the changes make Texas elections safer and more secure.
“It’s always been kind of confusing on how to properly assist someone filling out an application or their ballot. But now, I think people are just generally more intimidated about how to do that,” Broadway worried. “The difference between now and then is that there is now explicit instructions about the punitive effects of not properly helping someone.”
Joel Quade, Executive Director of an Austin retirement community called The Village at The Triangle, said they have processes in place to ensure their staff can help residents without overstepping.
“We want to help them get the tools they need and then step away, so they can privately cast their votes,” he said.
They work with residents to ensure they have the most updated documentation necessary to register to vote in person, to apply for a mail-in ballot, or to try and vote absentee if they moved from another state. His staff also will help transport residents to the polls.
“Our oldest resident is 99, so they have lived through many, many ideations of the voter rights and causes through their lives, — and so they are very passionate about that topic,” he said of the residents.
Quade said he was not worried about the changes in his community, but acknowledged how other communities with higher acuity residents might have more concerns.
“I could certainly see…folks that are dealing with more disabled and perhaps in different settings where that could be really tricky,” he said.