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How Texas officials and voting groups are trying to limit mail ballot rejections

In February, ahead of the Texas statewide primary, Carlos Vanegas at the Harris County Elections Office in Houston pushes a cart with mail-in ballots to be sent to voters. The county ultimately rejected thousands of the mail ballots it received back.
Scott Dalton for NPR
In February, ahead of the Texas statewide primary, Carlos Vanegas at the Harris County Elections Office in Houston pushes a cart with mail-in ballots to be sent to voters. The county ultimately rejected thousands of the mail ballots it received back.

After thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected in Texas' statewide primaries in March, election officials and voting rights groups are stepping up efforts to make sure voters don't run into the same problems with ballot rejections going forward.

Nearly 25,000 mail ballots were rejected for the March 1 primaries — a far higher rate than prior elections.

Some ballots were rejected because identifying data didn't match what was on file. But election officials and voting groups say a design issue with the envelope that Texas voters use to return their mail ballots was most responsible for the rejections.

Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says voters missed important instructions located right under the flap of the mail ballot return envelope. That is where voters have to provide either a partial Social Security number or their driver's license number.

"Voters wouldn't see [the section] if the flap is down," she says. "It's only visible if the flap is up. And the reason behind that was to keep it secret so people couldn't get that [information] when it was going through the mail."

Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications with the Texas secretary of state's office, says election officials are also convinced that the new voter ID field on the envelope is what led to mass rejections.

"Based on the number of people who just missed it completely, I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to think that some people thought it was just an optional section," Taylor says.

A lot of these changes were prompted by a voting law Republican state leaders enacted last year. Taylor says that among the changes, more information was required to be on the return envelope. That affected the envelope's design.

"There's more language that's required, and as a result there is more language and text competing for the same amount of real estate," he says.

How ballot design factors in

Whitney Quesenbery — the director of the Center for Civic Design, a nonprofit that focuses on using design to improve the function of democracy — says the issues over Texas' mail ballots offer a great example of why design is important.

"There are costs to this," she says. "So, we can see [that] when a vote-by-mail envelope is better designed that fewer are rejected."

Quesenbery says bad design is an issue in a number of states and with different facets of voting.

"Sometimes what I would think of as not great design happens not because someone is trying to trip a voter up, but because they are not a designer," she says. "They are not doing some of the things that we would see in, say, a commercial project — where you try it out. You would test it."

Chimene says the League of Women Voters of Texas has been working with the Center for Civic Design to create a pamphlet for Texas voters that breaks down everything they need to do to make sure their ballot is counted.

"And that involved simplifying the words and using images and graphics and using bolding and other methods that they specialize in to make voter information that makes sense," Chimene says.

The League of Women Voters of Texas worked with the Center for Civic Design to create a pamphlet for Texas voters to correctly send in their mail ballots.
Ashley Lopez / NPR
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NPR
The League of Women Voters of Texas worked with the Center for Civic Design to create a pamphlet for Texas voters to correctly send in their mail ballots.

The plan is to get county election officials to include these pamphlets with vote-by-mail materials. Chimene says hopefully their easy-to-read guides will clear up any confusion.

Taylor says most counties stocked up on materials for both the March primaries and May's runoffs at the same time, so most voters are still using the old ballot envelopes during Tuesday's runoff elections. And only a few counties sent out their own guides to help voters fill out ballots correctly.

For November, Taylor says there will be a change: The voter ID field that so many voters missed will be highlighted by a big red box.

"We are pretty confident that that's going to address the bulk of the issues, based on what we heard from back in the March 1 primaries," he says. "Counties were telling us that they were going in and physically highlighting the ID field to draw attention to it — and that seemed to help voters pay attention to it more often."

Taylor says the state is also launching TV and radio ads and is having a voter education tour aimed at letting voters know mail-in ballots are different than they were last year.

November is expected to bring in a lot of new voters, which will be yet another test for Texas' new vote-by-mail program.

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