Voter turnout for the March 1 party primaries declined from percentages Comal and Guadalupe counties posted in 2020 and 2018, though it’s too soon to tell how much the state’s tougher elections laws factored into the local equation.
Unofficially, Comal turnout was at 23.23%, or 28,909 ballots counted from 124,414 registered voters. It was just under the 23.57% turnout in 2018 but well behind the record primary turnout of 29.80% in 2020. Official Guadalupe numbers indicated a turnout of 18.53%, or 21,362 ballots counted from 115,293 registered.
Statewide, more than 27,000 absentee ballots were flagged for rejection, jeopardizing votes cast by Democrats and Republicans alike and in counties big and small, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. It puts the rate of rejected mail ballots in Texas on track to significantly surpass previous elections.
The preliminary figures — reported by Texas counties after votes were counted in the state’s March 1 primary — is the fullest picture to date of how new election rules rushed into place by Republicans following the 2020 election made it harder for thousands of voters in both parties. New requirements confused many voters, especially elderly residents who couldn’t read instructions in agate type. Ballots were rejected from those who failed to list driver’s license or Social Security numbers or entered wrong numbers on ballot envelopes that didn’t match county records.
County election officers say they worked feverishly to contact those voters in time, in many cases successfully. They helped residents fix their ballots or made sure they voted with provisional ballots on Election Day. Two weeks after the election, however, it’s unknown how many Texas ballots were effectively thrown out.
Counties must now publicly post a one-page reconciliation report of voters and ballots after each election that includes the number of mail ballots and how many were flagged for rejection.
The AP obtained reports from 120 counties — nearly half of the 254 in Texas — through county websites and contacting all counties that had not posted a report publicly.
Comal County mailed 3,335 ballots, with 741 not returned and 2,594 surrendered. There were 380 mailed ballots and 73 provisional ballots rejected for 453 total. Guadalupe County mailed 1,733 ballots with 289 not returned and 78 surrendered. There were 179 mailed ballots and 43 provisional ballots rejected for 222 total.
Comal’s straight mail-in rejection rate – the number of mail ballots divided by the number sent received – was 14.65% percent; Guadalupe’s was 10.32%.
“The new ID requirement created a lot of challenges, both for the voters and also for the elections office,” Guadalupe County Elections Administrator Lisa Hayes said. “It was challenging all over.
“We thought we understood the scope of the challenge, but we didn’t. It really presented logistical issues – ballots that had come back that had been in limbo. We worked with those voters to get their information updated, but it really created complications in having to keep track of it all.”
“It wasn’t just saying. ‘This ballot has been returned or, this ballot is rejected,’” Hayes said, adding those and other mail-in ballots were reviewed for a variety of reasons. It gave us this whole movement we don’t normally see with mail ballots – and it was challenging to keep up with all of that.”
In Travis County, home to Austin, 16% of the roughly 11,200 mail-in ballots were initially rejected; In Williamson County, north of Austin, 11.5% of ballots were rejected; El Paso County’s rejection rate was about 16%, and in Collin County, in the DFW Metroplex, the ballot rejection rate was 13.7%
“Unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed during the legislative session turned out to be true,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, which is part of a coalition of groups that sued over the law in September. “It’s very frustrating.”
In both counties, Republican votes outpaced Democratic votes by high margins. Comal’s GOP edge was 24,426 to 4,932; Guadalupe’s was 15,794 to 5,568. Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican chairs in both counties approved election vote canvasses March 10 and will stage county conventions Saturday, March 26.
Sue Piner defeated Keith Lopez and was reelected as Comal’s GOP chair, with Marilyn Aden unopposed in winning the Democratic chair. Guadalupe GOP Chair Karen Hale was unopposed for another term, as was Glenda Henry, who succeeds retiring Democratic Chair Duane McCune.
The county had few problems with the new Hart Verity Duo ballot machines and scanners in the first test of conversions to paper ballots. Also, the 24-7 cameras at the county’s main elections office, where votes are counted, recorded and stored, will continue for another few weeks.
Elections websites lauded
Both counties received high marks in the League of Women Voters of Texas’ eighth survey of Texas county election websites, scored on the variety of information made available to voters. Comal and Guadalupe counties each scored 110 points or 125 available and were among the 56 rated as “outstanding” and another 36 websites rated as “very good.”
The LWV slammed the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which runs elections in the state and the 87th Legislature for imposing rules that reversed voter participation gains in 2020.
“During the 2020 General Election, Texans all over the state benefited from more voting opportunities, such as expansion of early voting, extended hours at the polling places, and more options to return vote-by-mail ballots,” the LWV said in an accompanying statement.
“However, as we all expected, the new election law caused heart-breaking confusion among voters in the 2022 primary elections. Most notably, the new ID number requirements that needed to be added in Ballot by Mail applications and ballot carrier envelopes complicated voting. These new requirements hit older voters and voters with disabilities particularly hard.
“While we don’t have the final results on how many ballots were able to be cured, we do know that an extraordinary percentage of vote-by-mail ballots were rejected,” the League said. “But election officials were not allowed to promote or even educate voters about the new Ballot by Mail processes under threats of criminal prosecution.”
The League called it “critical” that the Texas SOS address the many obstacles voters faced in the primaries well ahead of the Nov. 7 general election.
“Ensuring a safe and secure election while providing voters with the information they need to participate fully in our democracy should be a priority for the Texas Legislature, the Texas Secretary of State and county election officials,” it said.
The next election
Next up for voters are local elections and the state’s special Constitutional Amendment Election on Saturday, May 7 and the Primary Runoff Election on Tuesday, May 24.
In addition to two proposed constitutional amendments, Comal County voters on May 7 will participate in municipal elections in New Braunfels and Garden Ridge; trustees elections in the New Braunfels, Comal and Boerne independent school districts, and general and/or bond elections in the Johnson Ranch and Canyon Ranch municipal utility districts, and Comal County Water Improvement District No. 3.
Thursday, April 7 is the last day to register to vote; Monday, April 25 is the first day of early voting; Tuesday, April 26 is the last day to apply for mail ballots and Tuesday, May 3 is the last early voting day. Election Day is Saturday, May 7.
For more, visit the county’s elections website, www.co.comal.tx.us/Elections.htm, or the elections link at the Texas Secretary of State’s website, www.sos.state.tx.us. Those with questions should contact the Comal County Elections Office at 221-1352 or votecomal.com.
The Associated Press, and Texas Tribune contributed to this story.