The call from the El Paso County Elections Department came in on a Friday afternoon: Could Beverly Roberts and her 91-year-old mother, Jetta Roberts, come to the courthouse by end of day Monday to fix an error on their mail-in ballots?
Beverly Roberts was baffled. She thought for sure she’d provided the necessary identification numbers on their return envelopes, remembering taking out their wallets to find the right cards. Confusion turned to anger, knowing it was impossible for her ailing mother to leave the house. There was also no way she could leave her mother home alone.
“I’ve been voting all my life and I’ve never had a problem with my vote. And now this time, my vote isn’t worth it,” said Roberts, 69.
The mother and daughter are two of the 758 El Paso County voters who had their mail-in ballots rejected in the March 1 primary, the first election under Texas’ new voting restrictions, which were passed into law last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The new law disenfranchised 15% of El Paso’s absentee voters, who are some of El Paso’s longest-tenured and most active voters, based on an El Paso Matters analysis of county election records.
In 2018, the last midterm primary election, the El Paso County Elections Department threw out just 13 absentee ballots, most of which arrived after the deadline.
About 90% of this year’s rejected mail ballots went uncounted because they did not meet the new ID requirements.
Voters casting their ballot by mail must now provide either their driver’s license number or partial Social Security number on their ballot envelope. The same information must also be included on their ballot application. A missing ID number or different number from the one used to initially register to vote are grounds for rejection.
Seventy percent of El Paso’s rejected mail ballots were from voters who registered more than 25 years ago; 17% had registered at least 50 years ago.
The new law led to higher mail ballot rejections statewide. Almost 23,000 ballots across 187 of the state’s 254 counties went uncounted for reasons including failing to meet the new ID requirements, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Lisa Wise, El Paso’s elections administrator, said the new law isn’t working.
“For us, working is not rejecting 700 ballots — of people especially that we know are registered voters, we know most of them had voted before by mail,” Wise said. “These were not people trying to commit fraud.”
El Paso County had 20 rejected Democratic mail-in ballots for each rejected Republican vote, according to data Wise provided.
Trends in El Paso’s rejected ballots
El Paso County’s rejected mail-in ballots came from voters ranging in age from 20 to 103 years old. The average age was 77.
About 75% of these voters identified themselves as Hispanic and 57% were women.
Nearly 82% of the rejected ballots came from regular voters who participated in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 general elections; 98% voted in the 2020 general election.
Beverly Roberts knows firsthand the importance of elections. Her late father, Stan Roberts, was elected to El Paso City Council’s Northeast seat four times, serving from 1991 to 1999. Her mother, Jetta Roberts, has been a member of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature since first being elected to the state legislative advocacy group for seniors in the mid-1990s.
“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about anything that happens,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ mother was extremely angry upon learning that their ballots had been flagged for rejection.
“I said, ‘Mom, how am I going to get you down there to vote? They’re not going to accept it (your ballot). I can’t get you there,’” Roberts recalled. “And she said, ‘This will be the first time in my entire life!’ But there was no option for me.”
Roberts declined to say in which party’s primary they were trying to vote.
Texas Republicans said the new election restrictions were needed to prevent widespread voter fraud, despite no evidence of such in previous state elections. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the law’s main author, repeatedly said the bill was aimed at “making it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
Hughes and his spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about the March primary’s unusually high mail ballot rejections.
“I don’t think it made things easier, that’s for sure,” Roberts said.
Even before the new rules took effect, Texas already had restrictions on mail-in voting, limiting it to those age 65 or older, people with disabilities or anyone out of the county during the election, among other criteria.
The right to take votes away
Andres Candelaria received the call from the Elections Department on election day alerting him of an ID error on his mail ballot. For the 70-year-old retired computer programmer, it was the latest frustration in a string of issues that made getting an absentee ballot more taxing this year.
Under the new law, county election officials can no longer send unsolicited ballot applications to voters — a surprise to many routine mail voters who were expecting to receive one, Wise said.
Unlike most voters whose initial applications were rejected because they lacked the newly required ID information, Candelaria forgot to select which primary he wanted to vote in (he was interested in the Democratic primary). That further delayed getting his ballot.
An Elections Department employee told Candelaria he could cast a ballot in person before polls closed that day or he could stay on the line for information about how to “cure,” or fix, his mail ballot. He chose the latter since his diabetic nephropathy makes it difficult to walk, causing him to rely on a cane.
Then the call dropped. Fed up and unaware that he had through March 6 to fix the ballot, he resigned himself to the fact that he had no other option.
“The Constitution gives me the right to vote,” Candelaria said. “What gives Texas the right to take my vote away?”
Weeks after the election, Candelaria still can’t comprehend why a driver’s license number or Social Security number is needed on the ballot envelope when he provided that number on the application to receive a mail ballot.
“I’ve gone through the process already and I’ve been approved to vote,” he said. “I didn’t expect any required information for me at that point.”
About 900 people whose ballots were initially flagged for rejection “cured” their ballots by the deadline, Wise said. Another 332 people whose ballots were flagged decided to vote in person.
Preparing for the next election
Stephanie Karr, 70, would have corrected her ballot had she known there was an error. But she never got a call from the Elections Department.
Wise said department staff attempted to call everyone for whom they had a phone number on file.
In hindsight, Karr, who was seeking to vote in the Democratic primary, said the ballot that arrived in the mail after she’d already returned her mail-in ballot should have been a sign. But the envelope looked identical, and assuming it was a duplicate sent in error, she discarded it without even opening it — something several other voters told El Paso Matters they’d done.
“Like many things, you always think it happens to someone else, right? I’m smart and I know how to read and I’m committed to voting,” said Karr, who retired as executive director of the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence in 2018.
“I thought I did everything right,” she said. “That was one reason why I didn’t open the second ballot — because I was confident that I had done everything right.”
What looked like a second ballot was actually Karr’s original ballot along with a rejection notice, Wise said. After hearing about Karr’s experience, Wise said the Elections Department would look into whether they could put a stamp on the envelope to better alert voters of what’s inside.
Wise empathizes with voters’ confusion about the changes required by the new law.
“It was frustrating to feel the voters’ frustrations and have very little that we could do about it,” Wise said. She spoke to hundreds of voters who often directed their frustration and anger at herself and the elections staff, who Wise said had no choice but to follow the law.
The department adapted as best it could during the process to better accommodate voters, Wise said. It crafted language for the notice included in returned rejected ballots and started highlighting the section on the envelope for the ID number. As none of these changes came from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, they first had to be approved by the county attorney.
Ahead of the November general election, the Elections Department will plan a public outreach campaign to inform voters of the new requirements, Wise said.
Anyone who wants to know whether and why their mail-in ballot was rejected can call the department at 915-546-2154.
“I don’t want people to give up” and stop voting, Wise said. “We are going to try to make it, one, as easy as possible in November, and two, to give voters the information they need in a clear way to take the steps they have to take.”
Karr, Candelaria and Beverly and Jetta Roberts all remained undeterred and said they will keep voting, as soon as the May primary runoff. Candelaria and both Roberts will try again by mail, but Karr isn’t going to risk it.
“I’m just going to vote in person from now on instead of trying to do mail-in because it’s such a pain, and that’s not right,” Karr said.
Cover photo: Andres Candelaria was among 758 El Pasoans whose mail-in ballots were rejected in the March 1 primary election, mostly due to a new state election law. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)