Early voting and mail-in ballot turnout is expected to decrease in the Texas March 1 primary, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Texas voter turnout is usually expected to be from 10%-20% of the state’s registered voter base, according to Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office.

In the 2018 Republican primary, 10.16% of registered voters took part either through in-person early voting or mail-in ballot, per historical data from the secretary of state’s office. That number has dropped this year to 4.52% as of Feb. 24, with one day of early voting left to count Feb. 25. The 2018 Democratic primary saw 7.01% of registered voters, decreasing to 2.75% as of Feb. 24.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston and director of the school’s Election Lab, called the decline “significant” and said it was a trend in midterms stretching back to 2010. Rottinghaus attributed the decline to changes to election law enacted by the state's Senate Bill 1, signed into law Sept. 7.

“When you change the voting process, you tend to lower turnout,” Rottinghaus said.

SB 1 increased early voting hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and outlawed 24-hour voting. The bill also added requirements for mail-in ballot voting and prevented counties from proactively sending mail-in ballots to residents. Gov. Greg Abbott made election integrity an emergency item for the first and second sessions of the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021.

“Senate Bill 1 ensures trust and confidence in our elections system—and most importantly, it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat," Abbott said in a Sept. 7 news release after signing the legislation.

Increased mail-in ballot rejections

Applications for mail-in ballots for the March 1 primary closed Feb. 18. Some large counties in Texas, including Harris and Travis counties, reported rejection rates for mail-in ballots at 40% or higher.

The secretary of state’s office recorded a cumulative 17,744 Democratic mail-in ballots cast in 2018 in Harris County at the close of early voting. As of Feb. 24, the county recorded 10,947 mail-in ballots. Republican early mail-in ballot turnout also decreased from 20,075 in 2018 to 7,746 in 2022.

Rottinghaus said he believes restrictions on election officials’ abilities to inform voters about the application process as well as requirements for certain identification on the ballot form were root causes of decreased turnout.

“Some people get the new ballot and think it’s too complicated, and then don’t fill it out and don’t vote,” Rottinghaus said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo previously criticized the mail-in ballot application at a Jan. 19 press conference, calling the provision a “solution in search of a problem.”

Travis County officials expressed similar concerns, with the county clerk's office stating it had rejected about 50% of mail-in ballot applications Jan. 13.

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria filed a lawsuit against the bill, arguing its restrictions on election officials were a First Amendment violation. County Attorney Christian Menefee, representing Longoria, won a temporary court order Feb. 11 staying the bill, but the Fifth Circuit court overturned the stay Feb. 17.

“I am disappointed that the Fifth Circuit has undone the preliminary injunction that protected Administrator Longoria’s First Amendment rights,” Menefee said in a statement. “One thing that’s clear from the high number of mail-in ballot applications being rejected is that our election officials should be empowered to explain the process and encourage folks to apply to vote by mail, if eligible.”

Mailing ballots

Voters who have received their mail-in ballots must include either their driver's license number, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their carrier envelope, Taylor said.

According to the secretary of state’s website, early voting clerks must receive the marked ballot by 7 p.m. on March 1. The state’s VoteTexas platform includes full instructions on submitting the ballot.