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Photo by Jo Clifton

Clerk calls out voter suppression under new law

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 by Jo Clifton

While the authors of Texas Senate Bill 1 call it “an act relating to election integrity and security, including by preventing fraud in the conduct of elections in this state,” Texas Democrats call it voter suppression. At a press conference Tuesday, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir described the difficulty voters are having requesting vote-by-mail ballots, concluding, “My friends, this is what voter suppression looks like.”

As a result of new rules put into place by SB 1, the form for requesting a vote-by-mail ballot is considerably more complicated and requires information voters may not have. And DeBeauvoir’s office is prohibited from offering help.

Last week, DeBeauvoir announced that the clerk’s office was rejecting about half of the requests for mail-in ballots. By Tuesday, she said that rate had fallen to about 27 percent, adding “that’s really high” in comparison to previous years. She noted that her office is prohibited in many ways from helping voters and that doing so could result in being charged with a state jail felony. (DeBeauvoir has already survived a failed attempt by the Texas attorney general to have her charged with obstructing a poll watcher.)

DeBeauvoir placed part of the blame squarely on Texas Secretary of State John Scott’s office, which is supposed to help county clerks and Texas voters. While she said most of the people who work there are “capable and dedicated public servants who are caught in a terrible situation,” politicians like the secretary of state and the Legislature “have placed this office in that position. The office has been poorly funded and ignored … for too long. They don’t want this office to help voters.”

When last week, DeBeauvoir described how difficult it was to reach the secretary of state, a number of news organizations reported it. She also complained that, while county clerks were supposed to be able to log in to the SoS voter tracking system, it wasn’t working.

DeBeauvoir held Tuesday’s press conference to further discuss the problems with SB 1 and the agency. She noted that county clerks in Williamson, Bexar and Harris counties confirmed Travis County’s experience trying to get help from the secretary of state’s office. She quoted one clerk from an unnamed county who said they had tried to call the SoS “several times a day for a week with no answer.” Another reported that their online ballot tracker was blank, adding, “We were told on Dec. 31 we would have training” on how to use the new SoS database .… One day it took us 33 calls to get through.”

On Saturday, DeBeauvoir said, after stories about problems clerks were having with SoS and its database, her office received a call about a seminar for county clerks at 9 a.m. Tuesday, including information on rejecting or accepting applications for mail ballots. DeBeauvoir had publicized the fact that she was going to hold a press conference on voter problems at that same time. On Tuesday morning, her office was informed that the secretary of state would host a seminar on Thursday on how to use the portal on the SoS website.

“That is too little, too late, but it’s better than nothing,” she said, adding that she was glad her criticism of the process had caused the secretary of state “to scurry around and get back with us.”

On Tuesday, following DeBeauvoir’s press conference, the Austin Monitor had no difficulty reaching the secretary of state’s office and received immediate help with the name, phone number and email address of the agency’s spokesman, Assistant Secretary of State Sam Taylor.

Taylor said via email, “Our office actually spoke with Travis County on Thursday evening (we reached out to them proactively) and advised them on the proper ballot by mail application process, which is why, per the Travis County Clerk’s own admission in her press conference, their rejection rate was revised from 50 percent down to 27 percent after speaking with us and receiving proper guidance. We will continue to work with Travis County and all counties to provide guidance on the procedure for processing applications for ballot by mail.”

He added, “As Dana mentioned, we hosted another training webinar this morning (after hosting an initial training session on Dec. 21, 2021), provided additional guidance over the weekend, and will be hosting another training webinar this week for all counties to receive guidance on this process.”

He said that the Mail Ballot Tracker (a voter-facing application) went live last week.

DeBeauvoir noted that the new law also prohibits any person from asking for a mail ballot for another person. That includes spouses, so one phone call is not enough for a married couple, and the office is prohibited from accepting requests except from the person wishing to vote. She said this is likely to cause great difficulties for those with disabilities, particularly those who have trouble speaking. She predicted that there would be a lawsuit over that aspect of SB 1.

One of the big problems voters face in attempting to get a ballot by mail is that the voter is required to put in a number corresponding to either their driver’s license or the last four digits of their Social Security number, depending on which they used in their original application for a voter registration card – which might have been filled out many years ago.

Under the new law, DeBeauvoir’s office is not permitted to call voters and tell them what they need to do to correct their ballot application. But she suggested that reporters, campaigns and political parties could certainly publicize the fact that a voter could write in both their license number and Social Security number to solve that particular problem.

Finally, DeBeauvoir said her office is prohibited from sending out voter registration materials from previous years. And there has been a shortage of paper leading to a shortage of voter registration forms.

Taylor told the Monitor, “While we have made clear to officials and groups that they should not be distributing the old version of the voter registration form, county voter registrars may accept completed voter registration applications on the old form, so long as the application is otherwise valid. In other words, using last year’s form in and of itself is not fatal to the voter’s registration application.”

However, hundreds of ballot applications in other parts of the state have already been rejected because they were on old forms that do not require all the information that the law now requires.

When DeBeauvoir was asked how she felt about retiring from her office during this fight, she said, “The fight to gain the right to vote has always been a fight. Next year it will be a fight.” She noted she had great confidence that the people following her would continue that fight and would do a good job. She added that she is not planning to leave Austin and that she might become even more vocal once she has left office.

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