AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Voting rights groups went before Congress on Wednesday and lashed out at Texas' tougher new voting laws during a Thursday congressional hearing following tens of thousands of rejected mail ballots – an unusually high number – earlier this month in the nation's first primary of 2022.
Democrats and civil rights advocates seized on an Associated Press report that found roughly 23,000 mail ballots went uncounted during Texas' March 2022 primary due to the state's new voting requirements as they embarked on a narrower push for new federal voting protections. Their attempts to dramatically rewrite U.S. election law collapsed in January and with the first primary of America's midterm campaign season already now over, time is running out and getting any bipartisan consensus to President Joe Biden's desk is likely to be difficult.
"What occurred in this primary election is just the beginning manifestation of what we are likely to see," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP State Conference.
Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers and party representatives largely ignored the thrown out ballots, instead turning their focus to Harris County, where state and county officials previously reported issues with 10,000 ballots misplaced but eventually counted. According to Cindy Siegel, chair of the Harris County Republican Party, voters also experienced polls opening late, issues with damaged equipment, voters being given the wrong form and untrained staff.
"There was true voter suppression on March first and the blame for it lies at the feet of the Democrat controlled Harris County," Siegel said.
In Texas, county political parties can choose to work together in a joint primary or host a split primary and hold simultaneous elections which each party is responsible for staffing respectively.
The AP's county-by-county analysis Wednesday found nearly 13% of absentee ballots were not counted, mostly due to new GOP voting restrictions similar to those enacted across the U.S. following the 2020 election. Most of the Texas ballot rejections happened because voters failed to comply with new ID requirements that took effect this year. While comparable historical data from primary elections is not available, experts say anything above 2% is usually cause for attention in a general election.
Texas Republicans advanced new voting restrictions – known as Senate Bill 1 – including a ban on drive-thru voting, new liberties for poll watchers and additional ID requirements in August following months of protests by voting rights activists and Democratic state lawmakers. The election law overhaul eventually passed following two walkouts by Texas Democrats, who are a minority in both legislative chambers and used the last resort effort to block the bill by denying their GOP colleagues the attendance necessary to cast a vote.
"The situation looks dire for November and for the runoff election before that," said Hani Mirza, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project Voting Rights Program, who are listed as co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 1. Mirza added that the number of rejections in November could be higher than the margins of victory in "local, state and even federal elections."
"If these egregious provisions of SB1 are not struck down I think we are going to continue to see high rejection rates in the November election, which will have a way higher turnout," Mirza said.