Charlotte Stewart has voted like clockwork every year since she was 21.
This March, at 70 years old, she missed an election for the first time. Stewart didn’t forget; she applied for a mail-in ballot, her preferred method of voting for the past five years. But the ballot never came, and she was turned away at a polling place on Election Day.
“They told me I could get a provisional ballot, but I will not be able to get mail-in ballots for the rest of the year,” she said.
Stewart is physically disabled and uses a scooter to travel. As executive director of REACH, Inc., a Dallas-Fort Worth resource center on independent living, she’s intimately familiar with the ways in which disability can complicate normal life tasks. Using mail-in ballots has enabled her to vote in past elections without having to navigate inaccessible polling stations.
But a new voting law passed by the Texas Legislature last year has made voting by mail increasingly difficult. An analysis by the Associated Press showed that about 13% of all mail-in ballots cast in the March 1 primary were rejected. In Tarrant County, 8% failed to pass muster.
Stewart’s mail-in ballot woes are emblematic of a larger voting accessibility problem across the state. Changes to rules governing voting assistance, wet ink signature requirements and the removal of drive-in voting have all erected new barriers for people with disabilities.
“I was so mad when I got that letter (rejecting my ballot),” she said. “I thought, ‘Darn it. You can’t prevent me from voting.’”
Texas advocacy organizations field questions during primary
When the March primary dawned, Disability Rights Texas was one of several statewide organizations waiting in the wings to help voters navigate changes under the new law. Employees answered calls to its voting hotline, at 1-888-796-VOTE (8683), to troubleshoot issues voters experienced at the polls.
Major changes under Senate Bill 1
- Mail-in ballots must have the voter’s driver’s license number or social security number.
- Ballot signatures must be ‘wet ink’.
- Drive-in voting locations are no longer allowed.
- Those helping voters with disabilities must sign an oath attesting they did not coerce the voter or accept compensation for their assistance.
Molly Broadway, a training and technical support specialist for voting rights for Disability Rights Texas, said calls from the March primary varied in issue type. Some were simple questions, like if curbside voting was still available to disabled voters, or how to request a mail-in ballot.
“All of the issues we received notice of were successful, meaning in the end, the folks were able to cast their ballots,” Broadway said.
Other issues were more complicated. A blind voter called the hotline after hearing her mail-in ballot was rejected 24 hours before Election Day. The reason for the rejection? She hadn’t put her ID number on the flap of the carrier envelope.
“How would someone do that, if they’re blind or have a visual impairment?” Broadway said. “It being a new application is already tricky. But then you add in the accessibility factor. That’s a whole other issue in itself.”
Texas Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat who represents part of Tarrant County, said an increased push by local election officials to educate people on the new mail-in ballot requirements could help decrease the number of rejected ballots.
“It is tricky though, because a separate part of that bill prohibits an elections official from encouraging anyone to vote by mail,” he said. “And I know that our elections administrators not just in Tarrant County but around the state have understandably expressed reservations about what exactly they can do in terms of informing voters.”
New voting law disincentives voting with a disability
From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 1, Texas residents went to the polls to make their choice for local and state primary candidates. Some came by car; others by their own two feet. Some hopped on a city bus; more still carpooled with friends. Then came the waiting.
“Even in the easiest of scenarios, it can take a long time to vote,” she said. “And if you’re taking public transit, or relying on specialized transit services, it becomes a big thing.”
Primary turnout is traditionally low in Texas — this year, about 82% of registered voters didn’t cast a ballot. Advocates worry an increasing number of those voters have disabilities. Coverage of the myriad reasons people’s votes can be discarded makes the prospect of carving out hours to vote even more onerous than usual.
Texas State Rep. Charlie Geren, who represents part of Tarrant County, said he heard from several constituents who decided not to vote at all because of privacy concerns related to putting their Social Security number and driver’s license number on a mail-in ballot, and an unwillingness to vote in-person. An easy legislative fix to the issue doesn’t exist because it’s important for voters to provide some form of identification, he said.
Organizations like Disability Rights Texas, REACH Inc. and REV UP Texas are pushing Texans with disabilities to register to vote. When people sign up for services through REACH, Stewart said, they’re encouraged to vote and offered resources for becoming registered.
REV UP Texas will host a flash mob at the Capitol March 26, where people will sing and dance while advocating for voter education and registration.
New attendant oaths draws concern from aides
For people with disabilities, personal attendants can help them complete tasks they would not be able to perform on their own, such as driving, writing or grocery shopping. Personal attendants can and do help with voting, but changes to the oath they’re required to take have prompted fears of criminal prosecution for simply doing their job.
“This new oath has all sorts of connotations to it,” Broadway said.
Attendants must disclose their relationship to the voter, whether compensation was provided, and recite an oath under penalty of perjury attesting they did not pressure or coerce the voter. The barr on compensation has worried attendants, who are paid for assisting people in all manner of ways.
“I don’t like the new rules for attendants,” Stewart said. “They’re taking us backwards instead of forwards. With the signing of a pen, they tossed all of our progress out.”
Attendants have also traditionally helped mail-in voters complete their ballots. Now, signatures must be wet-ink, so stamps for people who cannot write are illegal. Any attendant who helps fill out a ballot or signs for the voter must provide their personal information when doing so.
“Specifically, with the issue with personal attendants, to me that should be low hanging fruit,” Turner said. “The legislature could say someone who is a personal attendant would fall outside of the requirement as it pertains to voter assistance.”
Before you vote: tips from Disability Rights Texas
- Get assistance with completing mail-in ballots.
- If interested in curbside voting, call county election officials and set an appointment in advance.
- Be aware of your general voting rights before heading to the polls.
- Know who to call for assistance. Disability Rights Texas hosts a voter hotline at 1-888-796-VOTE (8683).
- Decide where you are going to vote and how you are going to get there in advance.
- Write down the candidates you intend to vote for on a piece of paper, which you may bring to your polling place.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.