AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas threw out mail votes at an abnormally high rate during the nation's first primary of 2022, rejecting nearly 23,000 ballots outright under tougher voting rules that are part of a broad campaign by Republicans to reshape American elections, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Roughly 13% of mail ballots returned in the March 1 primary were discarded and uncounted across 187 counties in Texas. While historical primary comparisons are lacking, the double-digit rejection rate would be far beyond what is typical in a general election, when experts say anything above 2% is usually cause for attention.
“My first reaction is ‘yikes,’" said Charles Stewart III, director of the Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It says to me that there's something seriously wrong with the way that the mail ballot policy is being administered.”
Republicans promised new layers of voting rules would make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat." But the final numbers recorded by AP lay bare the glaring gulf between that objective and the obstacles, frustration and tens of thousands of uncounted votes resulting from tighter restrictions and rushed implementation.
In Texas, a state former President Donald Trump easily won although by a smaller margin than 2016, the trouble of navigating new rules was felt in counties big and small, red and blue. But the rejection rate was higher in counties that lean Democratic (15.1%) than Republican (9.1%).
The unusually high rejection rate to start America's midterm election season is expected to put more attention on changes to the ballot box elsewhere in the country. Texas' election was the debut of more restrictive voting rules the GOP raced to put on the books across the U.S. in time for the midterm elections, a push that took particular aim at mail voting that soared in popularity during the pandemic.
At least 17 other states in the coming months will cast ballots under tougher election laws, in part driven by Trump's baseless and persistent claims of rampant fraud in the 2020 election. The rejected ballots in Texas alone far exceeds the hundreds of even possible voter fraud cases the AP has previously identified in six battleground states that Trump disputed.
The AP counted 22,898 rejected ballots across Texas by contacting all 254 counties and obtaining final vote reconciliation reports. Some smaller counties did not provide data or respond to requests, but the 187 counties that provided full numbers to AP accounted for 85% of the 3 million people who voted in the primary.
Last week, AP reported that 27,000 ballots had been flagged in Texas for initial rejection, meaning those voters still had time to “fix” their ballot for several days after the primary and have it count. But the final figures suggest most voters did not.
The most rejections were around Houston, a Democratic stronghold, where Harris County elections officials reported that nearly 7,000 mail ballots — about 19% — were discarded. During the last midterm elections in 2018, Texas’ largest county only rejected 135 mail ballots. Harris County elections officials said they received more than 8,000 calls since January from voters seeking help, which they attributed to “confusion and frustration” over the new requirements.
In the five counties won by Trump that had the most mail-in primary voters, a combined 2,006 mailed ballots were rejected, a rate of 10% of the total. In the counties won by Biden with the most mail-in voters, which include most of Texas’ biggest cities, a combined 14,020 votes were similarly rejected, which amounted to 15.7%.
In rural East Texas, Annette Young voted by mail like usual but received a surprising letter a week after the primary, informing her that the ballot never counted because it didn’t comply with a new state law requiring mail voters to include personal identification numbers.