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Small team, big job | A look inside Harris County’s race to resurrect rejected mail ballot applications

A team of 30 is checking thousands of ballots by hand in a race to resurrect rejected mail-in ballot applications.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — On the fourth floor of a building in downtown Houston, a team of about 30 people is working 12-hour days in a race to resurrect hundreds and hundreds of rejected mail ballot applications ahead of the March 1 Primary Election.

Stacks of rejected applications are proof that Texas SB1, a new state voting law, is confusing even for veteran voters.

The work for employees of the Harris County Elections Administration is tedious. Each mail ballot application must be opened by hand, separated, scanned into a database, checked and double-checked.

“We’re running on coffee and donuts to make sure that voters are able to vote, regardless of these new laws in place,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said. “We jump through hoops so you don’t have to.”

Longoria and her team are jumping -- once a mail ballot is rejected, county employees, like Bertha Gomez, make at least one call to each potential voter in an attempt to get their mail ballot application approved. Calls begin around 8 a.m. and are also made on Saturdays.

“Harris County, luckily, is very large and so we have the resources, thanks to Commissioners Court, to call voters and email them. Not every county has that capacity,” Longoria said of the phone calls and emails sent to rejected applicants. “And with a nearly 15% to 20% rejection rate right now ... that is something we feel compelled to do to help those voters out there.”

The new state voting law requires mail ballot applicants to list the driver’s license or Social Security number that’s on their voter registration. Some applicants don’t remember what is listed. Gomez spends much of her day confirming which identification number is in the voting database. She then alerts each individual which number they need to include in a new mail ballot application that Harris County will then send out.

“It’s that mismatch that we need some of those original numbers. So, when in doubt, fill it out. Put both of your identity numbers on there and your phone number. So if there’s any issue we can call you,” Longoria said.

Texans have until Jan. 31 to register to vote in the March 1 primary. Texans interested in voting by mail have until Feb. 18 to apply for the option.

Those who are 65 or older, people living with a disability that would keep them from safely voting in person and those who live out of the area, like college students and military members, can vote by mail.

“We are already on trend to see four, five, seven times higher the rejection rate than we’ve ever seen before,” Longoria said as she urged the 2.5 million registered voters in Harris County to fill out their applications as soon as possible.

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