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Voting is now underway in Texas for the state's March 1 primary. This is the first big election since the state's controversial new and restrictive voting law went into effect. County election officials say they are already sending ballots back to thousands of voters because of ID issues created by the law. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: As of this past weekend, election officials in Harris County, which is where Houston is, had received a little more than 6,500 mail-in ballots. And so far, they've had to send back almost 40% of those ballots because they've run afoul of new ID requirements. To Isabel Longoria, the county's election administrator, this is a serious problem.
ISABEL LONGORIA: Mail ballots are people's votes, and so I'm very concerned, not just with the complexity of the process, but how that added complexity is going to increase the number of mail ballots that we have to reject.
LOPEZ: The new law requires that the ID voters use when they vote by mail, whether it's a driver's license or partial Social Security number, matches what's on their voter registration record. But this has tripped up a lot of voters who don't remember what ID they used to register, sometimes decades ago. Chris Davis is the election administrator in Williamson County, north of Austin.
CHRIS DAVIS: All of us, all of us county election officials, are unfortunately anticipating a higher number of mail ballot rejections.
LOPEZ: If there is a problem with your mail-in ballot, what happens next largely depends on how early it's caught. James Slattery with the Texas Civil Rights Project says if a ballot is returned really early, then election officials can send the ballot back to be fixed. However, a lot of issues with vote-by-mail ballots are identified late. Slattery says it's likely election officials will have to resort to another process.
JAMES SLATTERY: Which is the county may, but is not required to, contact the voter and say, you can either cancel your mail ballot and vote in person or come to the clerk's office in person within six days of the election to fix the problem.
LOPEZ: And Slattery says that's a problem if someone is out of town. State election officials, however, say voters can prevent these issues by updating their IDs on their voter registration through a new website. But Grace Chimene with the League of Women Voters says that's not an ideal solution for older and disabled voters. They make up the majority of people who are even eligible to vote by mail in Texas.
GRACE CHIMENE: To be told that there's changes like this and then the expectation that they're supposed to be able to log on in a complicated manner and be able to figure out how to update their voter registration card, I think it is really a shame.
LOPEZ: Sam Taylor with the Texas Secretary of State's Office recommends that voters provide both their Social Security number and their driver's license on their application and return ballots. He says state election officials do not want to see ballots get rejected.
SAM TAYLOR: The secretary's stated open position is that we hope that that number is zero. You know, obviously, we don't want anybody who is eligible to vote by mail to have their ballot-by-mail application rejected or to have their ballot rejected.
LOPEZ: The state's voting law, which was backed by Republicans, introduced sweeping changes and new restrictions to the Texas election code. Local officials say everyone is doing their best to catch voters up on what's changed. But Isabel Longoria in Harris County says there's only so much time and so much she and her staff can do.
LONGORIA: This is not something I can outwork, right? No matter how many hours I stay up in the day, no matter how many team members we get here, no matter how many people we put on the phones to help voters, at the end of the day, this hurts voters.
LOPEZ: Voting rights groups are telling voters to return their mail-in ballots as early as they possibly can. That way, there's enough time to fix a problem.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
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