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Texas election officials testify on new rules at the polls

The state's controversial voting law came under legislative review for the first time as election officials gave their recommendations to improve reporting of election results and training of poll watchers.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday to examine the reasons for election result delays and the effectiveness of new requirements for poll watchers.  

When Texans took to the polls on March 1 for the first primary of the 2022 midterm elections, it was the first time statewide voting had taken place under a controversial new law that made several changes to the state's voting system. Senate Bill 1 was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last September, after months of Democrats rallying and using procedural measures to block any action from being taken on it.

The Texas House Elections Committee began Wednesday's meeting by asking state and county election officials why election results were delayed for the March primary election. 

Speaking first before the committee was Isabell Longoria, elections administrator for Harris County, the state's largest county and home to Houston. Longoria said that many challenges larger counties face in reporting election results quickly are caused by the state's new paper ballot system and rigid requirements on when to report results. 

“This paper ballot system that we are moving to, I think has some, let us call it, paper challenges that have not yet been contemplated by the Texas Election Code," Longoria told the lawmakers.

The challenges she cites include issues keeping track of and recording ballots that could be up to two pages long. In Texas, a person’s ballot is first inserted into a machine that records the choices made and prints them out on a physical copy. After that, the ballot is inserted into another machine where the votes are recorded and the paper ballot is stored before being transported to a central counting facility.

When asked by Representative John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, what else could be done to alleviate challenges for election workers, Longoria responded that defining what timely reporting means would be helpful. She pointed to the time needed to ensure every voter in line by 7 p.m. has an opportunity to vote, the time it takes to transport ballots through traffic and the time required to correct human errors. All of these factors lead to delays, Longoria said, stressing that the best solution could be to give larger counties more leeway, so they are not held to a strict time requirement. 

The panel also heard from witnesses on the progress of a new poll watcher training program. Lawmakers placed a requirement in SB 1 for the Texas Secretary of State to craft an online training program that prospective poll watchers are required to take before observing voting locations. 

The law gives poll watchers the specific authority to “see and hear” many facets of the election being conducted. In addition, poll workers are restrained in their ability to refuse entry to or remove poll watchers.

State and county officials said during Wednesday's hearing that the training program hasn't been around long enough to assess its effectiveness.

Keith Ingram, director of the elections division at the Texas Secretary of State's Office, said some changes will be made to ensure poll watchers are completing the training with a full understanding of their conduct at a polling location. As it stands, the training simply details what a poll watcher is and what their duties are while at a polling location, according to Ingram.

“We have heard feedback about having questions [during the training], so you cannot just click through the slides without reading them and that is a good suggestion,” he said.

James Slattery is a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a statewide organization that, through litigation and outreach, advocates for criminal justice reform and voting rights. In an interview, Slattery described the poll watcher provision as “the one dog that has not barked yet” when it comes to SB 1.

“We are nervously awaiting the fall general election to see whether this provision will affect voting as bad as we worry it will be,” Slattery said. “Senate Bill 1 basically encourages partisan poll watchers to be as aggressive and reckless as possible at a polling place.” 

Notably absent from the committee's agenda was the increased number of rejected mail-in ballots as a result of a new Identification requirement in SB 1. The law requires voters who fill out a mail-in ballot to provide their driver's license or Social Security number, depending on which was used to register to vote in the state.

Of the over 3 million ballots cast in the March primary, 24,636 mail-in ballots were not counted due to the new requirements. In many instances, voters failed to include the identification number on their ballot and others put a number that did not match the form of identification they used to register to vote, leading to their ballot being rejected.

Slattery said that the issues discussed during the committee hearing should not have been their primary focus. 

“The most important issue facing our elections right now is the catastrophic rate of vote-by-mail rejections that SB 1 caused,” said Slattery. “The committee is not facing this crisis of democracy that they caused.”

The absence of this issue was also noted by Representative Bucy before the meeting came to a close.

“We have 24,000 vote-by-mail ballots thrown out this last primary, did you say we will have a hearing to address that?” Bucy asked committee Chairman Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. “I just think that is a crisis and I want to make sure this committee is on top of it.”

“Yes,” Cain responded. “The chair intends to do so."

Cain said that after the May 24 runoff election, the committee will have more information to better examine the issue, leaving the impact of SB 1 still under the watchful eye of lawmakers, election officials and voters.

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