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By Joseph Ax and Moira Warburton
(Reuters) - Thousands of Texas voters' mail-in ballots for midterm primary elections have been rejected for failing to comply with new Republican-backed identification requirements passed in the wake of former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread fraud, county officials said.
Election officials in six of the state's largest counties, which are collectively home to about a third of Texas' population, are reporting unprecedented rates of invalid ballots, almost entirely because voters are neglecting to include an ID number on the envelope as the new law demands.
That has officials scrambling to try to help voters correct the errors, less than two weeks before the state holds the nation's first primary election in which the Democratic and Republican voters will choose their candidates for the Nov. 8 midterm elections that will determine control of the U.S. Congress for the next two years.
In Harris County, home to Houston and 4.7 million people, 3,475 ballots representing about 35% of those received by Tuesday could not be accepted because voters did not fill in the correct number. In past years, the overall rejection rate was between 5% and 10%.
Video: Ballots rejected due to new Texas voter law
The vast majority of ballots appeared to have been cast by registered voters who simply made an honest mistake, officials said.
"These layers don't provide more security, but they are providing more rejection," said Isabel Longoria, the top election official in Harris, the state's most populous county. "Election administrators are in this very bizarre situation where it's our job to help voters vote ... and we're having to reject ballots at a rate we've never seen before."
The number of rejected votes is certain to rise, given that the majority of mail-in ballots have not yet arrived at clerks' offices ahead of the March 1 primary.
Officials in Dallas County, the state's second-most populous with 2.6 million residents, said they were sending back 26% of mail-in ballots, much higher than in previous elections.
In Collin County, a district just north of Dallas with roughly 1 million people, 25% of mail-in ballots are being rejected, according to Bruce Sherbet, the county's election administrator.
Among other large Texas counties, Hidalgo election officials reported sending back 189 ballots of the 3,189 they had received, while at this time in the 2018 elections they had returned none.
In El Paso County, 270 of the 581 ballots – 46% – received on Tuesday were missing an ID number, said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator.
In Williamson County, north of Austin, about a quarter of ballots have arrived with no ID number, Christopher Davis, the election administrator, said.
Reuters reached out to officials in Texas' 12 most populous counties. The others either did not respond to requests for comment or said they did not yet have data to share.
The findings present an early look at how a wave of new restrictions on voting over the past year, largely passed by Republican-held legislatures, could affect turnout in the Nov. 8 elections.
"We've never heard of anything near as high as this," said James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Texas lawmakers approved the voting restrictions last September after a months-long effort by Democrats to block it that included lawmakers fleeing the state. It was one of many efforts in Republican-controlled states to pass new limits after Trump falsely claimed he lost the 2020 election because of widespread fraud.
When asked about the higher than usual rejection rates, Texas Secretary of State John Scott's office referred Reuters to a statement it issued on Wednesday that laid out voters' options for correcting rejected ballots.
Some county election officials said they thought the early problems would prove short-lived as voters get accustomed to the new requirements.
"I think it's gonna improve," said Sherbet, of Collin County, noting that the law does give voters who failed to fill out the number an opportunity to. "It was just a rough start."
REMEMBERING DECADES-OLD APPLICATIONS
The increased rejection rate follows a similar rise in the number of rejected mail-in ballot applications, which also carried a new ID requirement this year. Under the law, known as SB 1, absentee voters must include either a driver's license number or a partial Social Security number on both the application and the ballot itself.
If the number doesn't match what is in a voter's record, the paperwork must be fixed. Voting rights advocates have cited cases in which older voters may not recall which number they used at the time they first registered, perhaps decades ago.
Republican lawmakers argue the bill, which also imposed other restrictions such as barring drive-through voting, prevents election fraud and ensures public confidence. Democrats and civil rights groups point out voter fraud is exceptionally rare in the United States and say the bill is intended to depress turnout.
"Anytime you add a step to the process ... you lose voters who are making a good-faith effort to cast their ballot," said Katya Ehresman, the grassroots organizer for Common Cause Texas, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government reform.
Texas limits voting by mail to voters who are over 65 years old, disabled, ill, in jail, due to give birth immediately or out of their home county on Election Day.
Administrators said they have added temporary staff to call voters and alert them to the missing ID numbers, as well as mail rejected ballots back to voters so they can fix the defect.
TIME RUNS SHORT
But the March 1 election is fast approaching. Harris County on Thursday stopped returning rejected ballots, due to concerns that there wasn't time for a ballot to go back and forth through the mail by election day, Longoria said.
Williamson County and Collin County have stopped sending ballots back this week as well, instead relying on calls to try to reach voters. But not everyone can be reached by phone.
"We're trying to triage them as best as we can," Davis said.
The newly designed envelopes for mail-in ballots utilize a secrecy flap that covers up the ID number to protect voters' privacy. Officials said they fear voters are not seeing that part of the form as a result.
The new law has also left some county clerks unclear on exactly how defective ballots can be fixed. Davis said he understood that voters could use the state's online voting portal to do so, but Longoria said she believed voters either had to send in a new envelope or come to an office.
"The bigger issue is not who's right or who's wrong, but even election administrators are confused about how the system works," Longoria said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Moira Warburton in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)