Swamped with voter requests, the Texas secretary of state's office has become a focus of frustration

click to enlarge Swamped with voter requests, the Texas secretary of state's office has become a focus of frustration
Sanford Nowlin
It took more than two months of waiting, calling and emailing the Texas secretary of state's office, but one Dripping Springs woman said earlier this week she and her sister finally received the mail-in ballot applications they requested because they are working out of state.

When she called the state's top office overseeing elections, she said, workers repeatedly told her they couldn't confirm the status of her application request and directed her to Hays County, where the women are registered to vote. "I said, 'I understand that the county is the best place to go. A seasoned voter would know to go to the county,' " said Alex — a data scientist who asked to be identified by first name only out of fear she'd be targeted for her company's work on voting rights. "I went to the county initially and they pointed me to y'all. But I'm telling you when someone is on the website requesting this application, no one is there telling them to go to the county."

"We're in the middle of a pandemic where there are so many initiatives pointing to the secretary of state's websites and like pushing people to request mail-in ballots because of COVID," she said.

Her experience echoes complaints about the secretary of state's office from other Texas voters — tales of repeated phone calls and protracted frustration because there is no transparent way to determine if mail-in ballot applications requests are being processed, or have gotten lost in the shuffle.

In a pandemic-tinged election with voter turnout expected to hit record highs, the state's top election administrator is being inundated with requests from Texans who want to vote by mail.

As of October 11, the secretary of state reported having mailed out 460,195 mail-in ballot applications since April 2020.

The state acts as a processing center. The office is set up primarily to mail voters forms they need to fill out and send to their appropriate county election office. It's there, at the local level, where voters can begin tracking the status of when a completed ballot application is received, the ballot is sent out and a completed ballot is returned.

But, like other state agencies, the secretary of state's office is hobbled by work restrictions because of the coronavirus. Only a small team of about 10 full-time election staffers — according to more than one worker there — is processing voter registrations and the torrent of mail-in ballot application requests flowing in.

Many of the ballot application requests are being handled from employees' homes, a spokesperson for the agency confirmed.

Stephen Chang, director of communications for the secretary of state, verified some of Alex's experience in an emailed response to questions from The Texas Tribune.

"Operating under current coronavirus restrictions, members of our elections staff are currently teleworking or working after-hour shifts to manage the increased workload," he wrote. "This means that we have sent supplies home with our employees to stuff and label envelopes." Chang emphasized that "at no point is a voter’s confidential information brought outside of our office."

Chang said that while the agency sees its workload rise prior to every election, the volume of requests and returned voter registration applications has been "substantially higher this year." While the office expects some of the forms it sends out to be returned because of bad addresses or incomplete information, the number has increased dramatically this year, he said.

"It appears that third parties (political parties, non-profit organizations, etc.) have been using our website request link to get forms sent at state expense to voters who did not actually request them," he wrote. "This has resulted in an increased number of requests for blank forms as well as returned mail items because of inaccurate data provided by these parties/requestors."

As for Alex, she ultimately plans to drive home from California to vote early, with her confidence in the absentee voting process shaken by the delays and anxiety of dealing with the secretary's office. "It is crazy to think that Texas is in maybe the closest election, like it's ever seen for a general election," she said. "The state with the second largest amount of electoral votes in the country. It's unacceptable. It's egregious. It's just, it is negligent."

While there is no deadline to request a mail-in ballot application, local election officials must receive completed applications by October 23. The U.S. Postal Service is recommending voters get them in the mail by October 19.

You can print out your own application, contact your local elections office to receive one or request one from the secretary of state’s office. Contact information for early voting clerks in every county can be found here.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, October 16, 2020: This story originally stated that there is a deadline to request a mail-in ballot application. There is not, but completed applications must be received by October 23.

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