Changes To Texas Voting Rules Worry Older Voters And Those With Disabilities : The NPR Politics Podcast Election officials said more than 15,000 mail-in ballots weren't completed properly after the state imposed new voting rules governing Tuesday's primary races.

Election workers received thousands of calls from voters with questions and some vulnerable Texans opted to vote in person for the first time in years to ensure their ballot would be counted.

Similar rule changes have been imposed in more than a dozen states since the 2020 election.

This episode: voting reporter Miles Parks, politics and racial justice correspondent Juana Summers, and KUT reporter Ashley Lopez.

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Changes To Texas Voting Rules Worry Older Voters And Those With Disabilities

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JOEY: Hi. My name is Joey (ph), and I'm a bike mechanic here in Washington, D.C. I'm currently working on one of my customer's bikes. This podcast was recorded at...

MILES PARKS, HOST:

2:10 p.m. on March 2.

JOEY: Things may have changed by the time that you hear this, but hopefully this bike will be ready to go to not one, not two, but all three branches of government and a single bike ride. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

PARKS: We are getting into prime biking season here in Washington, D.C.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I know. The weather is beautiful. I kind of wish we could get outside right now, but we're going to talk about politics instead, I guess.

PARKS: Yeah. Just give me 20 minutes, Juana, and then you could be on the bike. I promise.

SUMMERS: OK. OK. We got it.

PARKS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics and racial justice.

PARKS: We've also got Ashley Lopez here with us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Hi, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey there.

PARKS: Texas, where you are, held the first primary race in the country last night, and the governor's race in November is now set. It'll be incumbent Republican Greg Abbott against Democrat Beto O'Rourke. Many other high-profile primary races are headed to runoffs, including Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, who is one of Congress's most conservative Democrats in the entire body. He'll be facing progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. But it was also the first Election Day since sweeping election changes in the state that drastically change how a lot of people cast ballots. Before we get into the impact that that might have had, Ashley, I'm wondering if you can just start off for people who aren't, you know, in the weeds the same way you are into Texas election law. What changes were made since the 2020 election to how people vote there?

LOPEZ: Right. So lawmakers here passed SB 1. It - and that's a pretty massive overhaul of the state's election code, actually. So it changed a lot of things. For one, when it comes to in-person voting, the state set new limits for when polls can be open. It also got rid of drive-through voting. And, you know, it - depending on where you live, you're not likely to have been affected by these aspects of the changes to the law too much because it was only a couple of counties that took advantage of unlimited polling hours and drive-through voting, mostly Harris County during the pandemic in order to make it safer to vote. So in-person voting, depending where you live, either changed a little bit or not at all. But the bigger changes, actually, are related to provisions for people who need assistance at the polls, mostly people with disabilities and vote-by-mail voting. That is where some of the biggest changes are being felt by voters.

PARKS: Yeah, right. There was this change in the law I feel like that got a lot of headlines about people - if you are one of the few voters, I think its senior citizens and people with disabilities, who are eligible to vote by mail, you need it to match your driver's license number and the Social Security number, whatever thing on the ballot needed to match what you had used to register to vote. Do I have that right or can you explain a little bit more how that worked?

LOPEZ: Right. So vote by mail in Texas - which, you're right, is limited to people who are over 65, people who are going to be out of town, people who are in jail but not convicted, and then people who have a disability - that changed in that there's a new matching process. So when you register, when you apply to vote by mail and when you return your mail-in ballot, there's now a new window where you have to provide either your Social Security number or your driver's license, whatever is in your voter record. And the state election officials say most people should have both on their voter record. But if it's not, you know, that's where there could be complications for the small amount of voters who maybe don't have both those pieces of information on their voter record and put the wrong one on their ballot. That's where I think there's been some problems is getting that matching number. So that's what county election officials were anticipating would be a problem. And that's what they're currently working through now with all the people who have started returning their ballot. Because initially - and, you know, I think I came on here and talked about it - initially, a lot of those applications were being sent back because they were finding issues with matching. There were a significant amount of people, up to like 40% in some counties - 40% of those applications were being flagged for rejection because there was trouble matching it with the voter record.

PARKS: Right. So, Juana, you had a chance to talk to some of these election officials who are going to be working with voters on curing some of these ballots and who administered the election in Texas yesterday. What did you hear on the ground about how these changes are actually affecting the people administering the election?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right, Miles. Our friend, producer Barbara Sprunt, and I were just in Harris County, Texas. We did not get to hang out with Ashley, but we did get to talk to some election workers at a downtown call center in Houston. And they described for us what it's been like to deal with this influx of calls by people who are confused about how to vote, concerned about whether or not their ballot counts. One stat that really kind of blew my mind - they told us that in January alone they received roughly 8,000 calls, the majority of which had something to do with that mail-in process.

PARKS: Wow.

SUMMERS: We talked to one call center worker named Angela Washington (ph). And, you know, the way that she described this to Barbara and I kind of almost sounded like she's working these callers through some sort of therapy. She said it was heartbreaking. She said that many times people call, and they're very frustrated.

ANGELA WASHINGTON: I comfort them as much as I can, and some of them just need to know that somebody cares.

PARKS: I'm wondering in Texas how officials there are looking ahead to November and even the runoff in May in terms of things that they can now improve on?

LOPEZ: I think one of the big things is they're hoping voters will be not as caught off guard as they are right now by the changes, particularly when it comes to vote-by-mail. It's easy to forget that most people aren't keeping track of what their state legislature is doing. So often they'll wake up one morning and not know that the way that they voted before has gone through this change, and they're going to have to adapt to it. So I think that's one thing and also that campaigns will learn and do - and over time will be better about how to message and prepare their voters for voting by mail. A lot of this education work is going to fall to and has fallen to, you know, voting groups and, you know, candidates themselves.

PARKS: Yeah. And it just reminds me that a lot of experts have told me over the last couple of years - as voting gets more polarized, especially in these hotspots like Texas or Georgia, they're also fighting an uphill battle against voters who are just hearing over and over again that voting is hard. Voting is hard - just people thinking, wow, you know, why should I even bother?

LOPEZ: So I also think this changes - hearing that information also changes how voters vote and whether they're going to vote the way they want to. So, for example, I talked to a voter here in Austin who lives on the west part of town. Her name is Diane Hanson (ph), and she is 74 and has been voting by mail for a while now. But she said that, you know, as she was getting ready to apply to vote by mail, she was hearing all this news.

DIANE HANSEN: You know, filling it out, I knew that there was probably someplace, you know, to put my identification. But to tell you the truth, it's very hard to find on that form. And so as I was filling it out, I kept seeing all these little stories on social media that applications for the ballots were being rejected.

LOPEZ: And she says she got nervous hearing all that, that she didn't want her vote by mail application and eventually her ballot thrown out. So, you know, at 74 years old, in the middle of a pandemic, she decided to vote in person. And she says luckily there was, you know, a nearby early voting site, and it was safe and she felt safe. But, you know, she said she's worried about the people who have, you know, maybe a disability that, you know, makes it harder for them to go to a polling place. She says this is a huge concern.

PARKS: Right. Not everybody can vote in person as easy as everyone else. All right. Let's take a quick break, and we will talk more voting in just a second.

And we're back. Let's talk about in-person voting changes now. During the pandemic, I know some counties in Texas rolled out new methods meant to help voters cast ballots more easily and more safely during the pandemic, like drive-through voting, like 24-hour voting sites, Ashley, that you mentioned earlier. Both are now prohibited in Texas. How did that change things this week?

LOPEZ: So when it comes to drive-through voting and 24-hour voting sites, you know, as I mentioned, not a lot of counties used this during the 2020 election, but those that did, there was evidence that it was overwhelmingly used by people of color. Particularly Harris County used drive-through voting and had 24-hour voting sites, and most of the people who used it were Black and Latino. This is why voting rights advocates say there is quite obviously going to be discriminatory effects from creating new limits on this type of voting because the people who took advantage of them were from racial minority communities. So they were very concerned about that.

The other group of people who have also filed a lawsuit and have been very concerned about the changes to in-person voting are people who are disabled. They have new restrictions on who can help them. You know, anyone who's going to provide assistance to them at the polls now has to sign an oath, fill out paperwork, and there's criminal penalties now related to helping people vote in person. So that creates a barrier for some people. They're going to think twice before they help someone, possibly. So those are some of the big changes that, you know, happen for in-person voting.

And, you know, there's a - we're in a different situation now with the pandemic, but definitely early on when there were - you know, there wasn't a vaccine and, you know, there were more infections, something like 24-hour voting did a good job of staggering voters. And county election officials have told me they would like to have those options moving forward just because we never know what the future holds.

SUMMERS: And to Ashley's point about how this impacts people with disabilities, Barbara and I spoke with a number of voters in Texas who said that because those criminal penalties were so unclear, they felt like they had to go out and vote in person, even if they had been staying home due to the pandemic. There was also some concern about provisions in the law that give poll-watchers broader authority. We spoke to one voter, Lydia Nunez-Landry (ph), outside of Houston, who essentially said that she believed that could result in policing disability, something that could lead to more scrutiny on people, particularly if they do not have an evidently physical disability.

LYDIA NUNEZ-LANDRY: That really bothers me - you know, having people scrutinize or surveil me. I don't think it should be the case for disabled people to be treated that way, or any marginalized group.

PARKS: So, Ashley, zooming out a little bit here, how did yesterday's election go? Obviously, we've been talking for weeks, for months about how this law was going to play out. How would you overall say this election went? Were there big issues that we should be thinking about?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So actually, you know, this has so far looks like it was a low turnout election. So whatever problems there were, they seem to be pretty small in quantity just because so few people voted. What we do know so far is that there were a considerable amount of issues with vote by mail, which is not going to be surprising to anyone who has been keeping track of what's been going on with the ID requirement changes to vote by mail in Texas. What we do know is that depending where you are, there could be a high percentage of vote-by-mail ballots still flagged for correction around the state. We're hearing about around the 10% to 30% range of vote-by-mail ballots are still being worked through, depending where you are, and that number should come down. But, you know, voting rights groups say they're actually pretty concerned.

PARKS: It is also worth highlighting here that this is not happening in a vacuum. Texas is one of more than a dozen states that, after the 2020 election, passed some sort of restrictions on voting, most of them focused, like Texas did, on vote by mail specifically. Juana, looking ahead, Texas was the first election here in this primary cycle. What does it say about how these restrictive laws are going to play out in elections across the country?

SUMMERS: Sure. I've talked to a number of voting rights advocates, both in the state of Texas and across the country, who essentially make the point that Texas is just the first step in the absence of federal voting rights legislation, which, as you and I know, Miles, because we've covered it, has been stalled in the Senate for months now. These types of laws have drastically changed the landscape as states go to vote. Each state's bill looks a little different, but there are fears that you're going to hear more reports in other states across the country - not just Texas, places like Georgia where you just were - of confusion, of, as these advocates suggest, intentional disenfranchisement of voters. They essentially suggest that this is just a preview of what's to come and that it could dramatically change the landscape for primaries and general elections, which obviously have just huge implications for control of Congress, what bills are passed, how people live their lives.

PARKS: All right, let's leave it there for now. Ashley Lopez, thank you as always. I'm sure we'll be talking again very soon.

LOPEZ: Yeah, thanks for having me.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics and racial justice.

PARKS: And thank you for listening to THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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