Nearly 700 El Pasoans were unable to vote by mail in the March 1 primary election under new statewide voting restrictions.

The El Paso County Elections Department rejected 15% — or 683 — of the 4,528 submitted mail-in ballots because they did not meet new voter identification requirements laid out in Senate Bill 1, according to Elections Administrator Lisa Wise. Another 42 mail-in ballots were rejected for unrelated reasons, such as voters forgetting to sign their ballot.

Previous elections saw 5% to 10% of mail-in ballots rejected.

The bulk of this year’s 725 rejected mail-in ballots — 690 — were for the Democratic primary, according to data Wise provided.

Statewide, mail-in ballot use by Republicans was down this election, after leading Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, repeated unfounded claims that mail-in voting led to widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Texas Republican state legislators similarly argued that tighter restrictions were needed when they passed SB 1 over the summer, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the state’s election.

Wise was not available for an interview but told the Texas Tribune last week, “People have said this law was enacted to stop voter fraud, but honestly we’ve just seen voters who are qualified have to do the process twice, sometimes three times.”

The new voting law requires anyone applying for or casting a mail-in ballot to submit either their Texas driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number — which must match the number a voter provided when initially registering to vote, sometimes decades earlier.

Voters had until Monday, six days after the election, to “cure” or fix ballots flagged for rejection. Wise said 906 voters “cured” their ballot by the deadline. Another 332 voters whose mail-in ballots were flagged for rejection decided to cast their ballot in person.

Michael Apodaca, chair-elect of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said new voting restrictions “clearly had a negative effect” in El Paso, starting with the elections department’s inability to send out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters who previously used that method.

Under the new law, local election officials could no longer send out mail-in ballot applications to those eligible unless requested. Previously, the El Paso County Elections Department sent a reminder letter and application to anyone 65 and older who had requested to vote by mail in a previous election.

“Voters were confused, especially senior voters who had been depending on the election department to send them applications,” Apodaca said. “Time over time again, we heard from senior voters asking, ‘where’s my application?’”

The new application form also created confusion, he said.

The elections department rejected 397 mail-in ballot applications because they did not comply with the new ID requirements, Wise said — 6% of those submitted, up from the 1% rejection rate seen in the 2020 general election. Another 538 applications were rejected because they were either submitted late, were not signed or did not select a party’s primary.

Ray Baca, chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, did not return a request for comment about any impact SB 1 had on Republican voters.

Apodaca, who will be sworn in in June, said he plans to reach out to El Pasoans who traditionally have voted by mail in advance of the November general election to ensure they are aware of the new application form and the new ID requirements.

“We just need to make sure people are more educated about what is happening and what rights are disappearing little by little with our state leadership,” he said.

Apodaca also wants to boost the number of people voting by mail, given the primary’s drop in vote-by-mail participation.

The March 1 primary saw 594 fewer mail-in ballots counted compared to the 2018 midterm primary. The decrease was even more stark compared to the 2020 presidential primary, when 2,383 more mail-in ballots were counted than this year’s 3,803.

Wise told the El Paso Times last week that the elections department is planning “a pretty large public information effort” ahead of November to reduce the number of mail-in ballots flagged for rejection.

Cover photo: Workers wait for voters at the polling location at the El Paso County Courthouse on March 1. Voters with rejected mail-in ballots could fix the issue by voting in person. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.

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