Suppression of Mail-In Voting Looms Over Texas Primary

Early voting for a March 1 primary election opened yesterday in Texas, where civil rights groups are warning the Republican Secretary of State John B. Scott of a “crisis of confidence” among voters as election officials scramble to implement the state’s punitive new election law.

According to a letter to Scott signed by 30 civil rights groups this week, he squandered precious time “chasing down” former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election results when state officials should have prioritized helping voters and election officials navigate Senate Bill 1, the new restrictions on voting and mail-in ballots that Republicans rammed through the state legislature last year.

“Altogether, the issues stemming from the passage of anti-voter Senate Bill 1 create multiple deliberate barriers to voting with far-reaching consequences,” said Charlie Bonner, communications director for MOVE Texas Action Fund, in a statement. “These failures have led to mass confusion surrounding our voting processes that continue to undermine trust in our elections.”

Scott briefly signed onto one Trump’s ill-fated lawsuits that attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential vote in Pennsylvania before Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appointed him to Texas secretary of state last year. For Republicans, Scott is a champion of “election integrity,” a buzzword describing the idea that restrictions on voting are needed to prevent fraud. Despite Trump’s claims, there is no evidence of widespread fraud in 2020 or any other recent election, and critics say Texas Republicans are continuing a longstanding tradition of diluting the voting power of people of color, workers and people with disabilities.

The uncertainty and confusion hanging over the Texas primaries was underscored late last Friday when a federal judge in San Antonio issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of a portion of the voter restriction law that made it crime for public officials to encourage or “solicit” applications to vote by mail. Plaintiff election officials said the restrictions violated their First Amendment rights and made it difficult to help elderly and disabled people apply for mail-in ballots without potentially committing a criminal offense.

Scott’s office did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment, but a spokesman told Politico that some county officials have “almost been overly restrictive on themselves.” But the incentive to be “restrictive” is clear: “Unlawfully soliciting” mail-in ballots is now a felony punishable by 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $10,000, according to the Texas Tribune.

Across the state, officials have complained about rejecting large numbers of mail-in ballot applications due to confusion over the law’s cumbersome new ID requirements. Senate Bill 1 also enhanced criminal penalties and paperwork for people who assist voters, creating hurdles for elderly and disabled voters and the people who care for them.

Officials have rushed to update forms to alert voters to new rules and penalties ahead of the midterms, and Scott’s office was initially forced to ration voter registration forms after running out of paper due to problems in the supply chain.

“This was a seismic blunder that threatened many thousands of eligible voters, and which you worked to fix only after a massive public outcry,” the groups wrote in the letter.

Scott’s office has responded to lawsuits and public outcry by issuing guidance on a rolling basis, but advocates say Scott still has not done enough to educate voters about new rules and procedures for mail-in voting. For example, Scott’s office rolled out a new website for tracking mail-in ballots, but most voters don’t know about it, according to the letter.

“Unlike Secretary Scott, we have been working directly with voters to provide the support and guidance that they deserve in the wake of the confusion of Senate Bill 1,” said Stephanie Gómez, associate director for Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

The groups said public confidence in Texas elections was already eroding before Abbott appointed Scott last year. In 2019 and again in 2022, attempts at purging non-citizens from voter rolls have wrongly targeted naturalized citizens and intimidated immigrant voters.

In 2020, Scott’s predecessor forced election officials in Harris County, which includes most of Houston, to abandon a plan to send mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter due the pandemic, according to civil rights groups. Republican election officials also worked with Abbott to severely limit the number of mail-in ballot drop boxes available to voters shortly before the 2020 election.

Texas Republicans went on to pass Senate Bill 1, which the Justice Department has challenged in court in defense of elderly and disabled voters. Republicans passed the new penalties for encouraging or “unlawful soliciting” of mail-in votes after a series of legal fights with Democratic election officials in Harris Country and other populous areas over the issue. Mail-in ballots are highly controversial in Republican-led Texas, where high voter turnout in 2020 left Trump with a narrower margin of victory over President Joe Biden than the former president may have expected in a traditionally red state.

In September, Trump demanded that Abbott pass legislation authorizing a “forensic audit” of ballots in Texas long after state officials declared the 2020 election “smooth and secure.” Within hours of Trump’s request, Scott’s predecessor ordered an audit of the results in the state’s four largest and most diverse counties, including Harris County. Abbott appointed Scott to take over as secretary of state soon after.

Initial results of the review released last month found few discrepancies, confirming what many observers in Texas already knew: There was no widespread voter fraud in 2020. Voting rights advocate chalk it up to a thinly veiled and hyper-partisan attempt to bolster Republican conspiracy theories about a stolen election that fueled a wave of voter suppression efforts in Texas and other states.

The civil rights groups say Scott has been vocal about making the election audit his “first and foremost” priority while his office should have been preparing for a primary election with new voting restrictions in place. They say Scott must use the time remaining before the March 1 vote to expand efforts to educate voters about the changes, issue clearer guidance to local officials, and protect voters from intimidation by partisan poll watchers who are empowered to intervene at polling locations under Senate Bill 1.

“The longer these issues go unaddressed, the more voters [are] impacted, and the more extreme the impacts on our democracy become,” Bonner said.