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Politics

Texans face challenges in casting ballots under new voting law

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Texas is holding a primary election next week. It's the first statewide election since the Texas Legislature passed a sweeping law that drastically changes how people vote. Supporters of the law say it will restore voter confidence in elections, but election officials in the state's most populous county say it has already led to widespread confusion among voters, so much so that 40% of applications to vote by mail were flagged for rejection. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm viewing your application.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: In an office building in downtown Houston, a team of election workers sits across from each other in gray cubicles, managing a flood of calls from voters. In January alone, there were 8,000 calls.

ANGELA WASHINGTON: The phone ringing back to back to back pretty much, with concerned voters wanting to know, you know, where their ballots are and what's the status on their applications.

SUMMERS: That's Angela Washington. She's one of the 15 call center workers at this Harris County office dedicated to making sure those voters get answers. Texas limits who is allowed to vote by mail. The group includes those over 65 and people with disabilities. The new law says the ID they provide has to match what's already on file, and that is sometimes not as simple as it sounds. If a voter registered decades ago with their Social Security number but is now using their driver's license number, they'd be rejected.

WASHINGTON: It breaks my heart, some of the situations. I've talked to so many people over the age of 90 plus.

SUMMERS: Washington says she can understand why some callers are frustrated, even angry.

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

SUMMERS: She calls this the most meaningful job she's ever had. But election workers are also dealing with an incredible amount of strain.

ISABEL LONGORIA: Every day, they are on a phone call where they break down crying. We have people quit almost every week.

SUMMERS: This is Isabel Longoria. She's the elections administrator in Harris County.

LONGORIA: The hours are too much. The stress is too much. The feeling like we're shouting into a void where no one is listening is too much.

SUMMERS: Republicans argue voting restrictions like those in the Texas law make it easier to vote and harder to cheat despite no widespread evidence of voter fraud. Texas Secretary of State John Scott did not respond to an NPR request for comment, but here he is speaking to Spectrum News about criticism that the law is confusing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN SCOTT: It's the first time for this office to administer an application to a ballot by mail the way that it's happening. So I think there's a little bit of a learning curve that's going on.

SUMMERS: Longoria says that's callous.

LONGORIA: Your core rights in this country should never be someone else's learning curve.

SUMMERS: In 2020, Harris County rolled out new methods meant to help voters cast ballots easily and more safely during the pandemic, like drive-through voting and 24-hour voting sites. Both are now prohibited. Lydia Nunez Landry, who lives in a suburb of Houston, says that voting should be accessible for everyone. It doesn't feel that way to her this year.

LYDIA NUNEZ LANDRY: It's like we finally make some progress, and then we have the rug pulled out from underneath us. I mean, it just kind of feels like they want to discourage us from voting.

SUMMERS: She has a progressive and currently untreatable form of muscular dystrophy. Because of the risks of coronavirus, she isn't leaving home much, but she says she feels like she has to vote in person.

NUNEZ LANDRY: With everything that's been going on, with so many mail-in ballots being discarded or thrown out or rejected, I'm just too afraid.

SUMMERS: And she worries the part of the law that gives poll watchers broader access could result in policing disability.

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.

SUMMERS: Gabe Cazares, the director of the Houston Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, says there is also a lack of clarity around what types of assistance Texans with disabilities can use.

GABE CAZARES: The law makes it a crime to provide unreasonable assistance. There is very little guidance as to what that means. So folks who provide direct service to people with disabilities are concerned about potentially breaking the law.

SUMMERS: Texas is one of 18 states that passed more restrictive voting laws after the 2020 presidential election. James Slattery of the Texas Civil Rights Project says this should be a wake-up call.

JAMES SLATTERY: People should look at what's happening in Texas as a warning sign for what may be happening in your state soon enough.

SUMMERS: Lydia Ozuna lives in Fort Bend County and leads an anti-gerrymandering group. For her, what's happening in Texas brings up memories of watching her father pay poll taxes so that he could vote.

LYDIA OZUNA: Our state has a history of violating the civil rights of its citizens. I lived it as a kid.

SUMMERS: The 73-year-old is plugged into the process, but even she got tripped up when she applied to vote by mail. She unintentionally used an outdated application form.

OZUNA: I was one of the lucky ones in that I found out right away.

SUMMERS: That's because she submitted her application in person. The clerk she handed it to flagged the error. After she mailed her ballot, she followed up using the state's ballot tracker. She called her county's early voting clerk, but she worries that others might not be able to be so persistent.

OZUNA: I think the point is to just have the few people who have the know-how be the ones who vote and everyone else stay home, and that's a grim prospect.

SUMMERS: Back at the Harris County Elections Office, Isabel Longoria says that prospect is why she and her team keep working through burnout, through their own frustrations with the law's rollout.

LONGORIA: If I have everyone quit tomorrow in elections, democracy is not happening. I don't get to fail at this job, and I think that's what everyone on my team understands who does still find another day to work.

SUMMERS: Juana Summers, NPR News, Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "HYPNOSIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.