Voters of color had mail-in ballots rejected at higher rates than white voters in Texas’ March primary

Asian voters were most disproportionately affected by the new ID requirements included in voting restrictions passed by the 2021 Legislature, a Brennan Center for Justice analysis found.

click to enlarge A voter leaves the Bexar County Elections Department office. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
A voter leaves the Bexar County Elections Department office.
This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

Alice Yi of Austin is frustrated when she thinks about the March primary election, in which her 92-year-old father tried to vote by mail, as he had many times before, but couldn’t.

He could not remember what identification number he used to register to vote more than 30 years ago, she said. When he sent in his ballot application with the last four digits of his Social Security number, a rejection letter from the elections office said that number was not on file. Another letter later said her father, who is legally blind in one eye, failed to fill out other details, such as specifying which ballot he needed.

By the third attempt, Yi, his caregiver, worried her father’s application would not make it before the deadline and he would be unable to cast a ballot. So she took him to vote in person, for the first time in years.

Yi’s father was just one of thousands of Texans who attempted to vote by mail in the March primary but collided with the Texas GOP’s restrictive 2021 voting law, known as Senate Bill 1. When voting by mail, the new law requires voters to write their driver’s license number, personal identification number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail ballot application and mail ballot envelope — whichever number they originally used to register.

In fact, the mail-in applications and ballots of Asian, Latino and Black Texans were rejected because of the new ID requirement at much higher rates than those of white voters, according to a study released Thursday by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. The office of the secretary of state declined to comment, citing pending litigation over SB 1.

Although researchers couldn’t determine the exact cause of the disparities, experts and advocates say that in addition to the voting law’s restrictions, existing factors rooted in systemic racism, such as lack of resources in people’s native languages and other socioeconomic barriers, likely played a role in the high rejection rates.

In the March primary, 12,000 absentee ballot applications and more than 24,000 mail ballots were rejected, leading to a 12% rejection rate statewide. That represented a significant increase compared with previous years. For example, the rejection rate for the 2020 presidential election was 1%.

The study shows the rejection rate was highest for Asian voters, who were about 40% more likely to have their absentee ballots application rejected than white voters.

The study also shows that Asian and Latino voters were each more than 50% more likely than white voters to have a ballot rejected due to a problem meeting SB 1’s new requirements.

Overall, 19% of Asian voters had either their applications or their mail ballots rejected due to SB1’s provisions, followed by 16.6% of Black voters and 16.1% of Latino voters. For white voters, it was 12%.

“This shows that even if you successfully applied to vote by mail, you still weren’t out of the woods, you still might have your ballot rejected,” said Kevin Morris, a researcher with the Brennan Center for Justice and one of the authors of the study. “And not only do we see this gauntlet effect happening, we see that there are big racial discrepancies in whose applications and whose ballots are rejected.”

Morris said two data sets were used to produce the study: the list of Texas’ registered voters and a list of every individual whose application or ballot was rejected, both obtained via public records requests. Demographic data about voters’ census tracts and surnames was used to estimate the probability that each voter is a member of different racial groups.

When it comes to the data about ballot applications, the study has caveats: Of the 245 counties included, 89 counties, including 12 with populations of more than 50,000, reported having zero rejected mail ballot applications, even though it’s likely many of those large counties did have rejections. Researchers requested more accurate data from the large counties and received the complete information from three: Travis, El Paso and Webb counties.

Excluded from the application rejection data set were Bexar, Bell, Ector, Fort Bend, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces, Potter and Waller counties. The white populations in these counties are smaller than the counties included. “Thus, even if we assume that these disproportionately nonwhite counties did not reject a single application, significant statewide racial discrepancies remain,” the study said.

No counties were missing rejection data for actual ballots, according to the study.

Multilingual resources and community outreach are needed

Yi thinks her father’s experience is instructive. This month, he did successfully apply for his mailed ballot, but only because Yi double-checked his application. Otherwise, her father would have again missed including the required ID number on the carrier envelope.

“But what about people who live alone, or in a nursing home or who don’t speak English? How will they know they need to add [an ID number] every time?” said Yi, 65, who for over a decade has been a professional advocate for the Asian community in Texas. “My father is so angry that voting for seniors is so difficult. This makes me so angry and sad. People should be able to vote.”

To help prevent future disenfranchisement of voters of color, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latino and Black community advocates say local government officials must prioritize language access and community outreach.

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