Partisan tactic by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign delays thousands of requests for mail-in ballots from Texas voters

(Marjorie Kamys Cotera For The Texas Tribune, Marjorie Kamys Cotera For The Texas Tribune)

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Thousands of applications for mail-in ballots submitted by Texas voters have been delayed — and some voters may ultimately not receive ballots — because Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's campaign instructed eligible voters to send requests for absentee ballots to the Texas secretary of state’s office instead of their local elections offices.

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A mass mailing by Patrick went out to Republican voters across the state in January, ahead of the March primary, and included a two-page letter emblazoned with the seal of his office encouraging voters to submit the requests following “three easy steps.” The problem was the third step, which instructed voters to return the applications in an enclosed reply envelope that was addressed to the state.

The lieutenant governor’s campaign said it used the secretary of state's address because “many Republican voters are rightly suspicious of Blue County election officials.”

“The decision to direct return mail to the Secretary of State (SOS), someone who is trusted and respected, gave voters an added layer of comfort,” Allen Blakemore, a campaign consultant for Patrick, wrote in an email.

But the campaign’s approach forced the secretary of state, which had a stated policy of rejecting applications erroneously sent its way, to sort and forward the Patrick-inspired forms to the counties where they should have been sent originally.

The delayed delivery could put voters’ requests for mail-in ballots at risk as counties continue to see higher-than-normal rejection rates of applications under new ID requirements enacted by Republicans last year. Any issues with defective applications must be resolved by Friday so voters can receive a mail-in ballot.

State workers have been forwarding the waylaid applications to respective counties, which this week were still receiving packages containing hundreds of misdirected applications.

The fiasco has further muddled the first election held since Patrick, as head of the state Senate, presided over last year's passage of new laws tightening voting processes, including a measure making it a crime for local election officials to send out applications for mail-in ballots to people who did not request them.

“Everyone age 65 and older has earned the right to vote early by mail. As Republicans, we have fought to make it easier to vote while protecting election integrity, so we need to make sure we increase our turnout by taking full advantage of this convenient and secure voting option,” Patrick wrote in a letter dated Jan. 20 that was attached with the applications.

Though the letter contains the official state seal for the lieutenant governor, as allowed by law, the materials were labeled as being sent out by Patrick’s campaign and not at taxpayer expense.

The mailing went out to voters in Harris County and central Texas, with Patrick endorsing area Republican candidates in different versions of his letter obtained by The Texas Tribune. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently reported the mailer also reached Tarrant County residents.

Unsolicited mailing campaigns from candidates and political parties are not uncommon. But Republicans’ penchant for encouraging voting by mail for their voters has come under scrutiny as they've worked to limit expansions of mail-in voting during the pandemic and criminalized the mailing of applications by county election administrators to voters who did not request them.

Republican lawmakers last year made it a state jail felony for local election officials to send out unsolicited applications for mail-in ballots, even to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify under the state’s strict eligibility requirements. They also prohibited local officials from even encouraging people to vote by mail.

The full scale of Patrick’s mailing efforts is unclear; his campaign did not answer a question about the reach of the mailings. But the secretary of state’s office previously told some county officials that it had received at least two pallets of applications, and some local election officials have indicated they were receiving hundreds of delayed applications.

“The SOS has always accepted ABBMs and quickly and efficiently routed them to the proper local offices,” Blakemore said, referring to applications for a ballot by mail. “We believe that this will ensure that Blue County election officials are more likely to properly handle our ABBMs when they know they are being watched and monitored by the SOS.”

In an email responding to questions about the misdirected applications, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state did not address the mailing campaign by the lieutenant governor.

“Generally speaking, we request that voters do not mail, fax, or email completed applications for Ballot by Mail to the Secretary of State Office,” wrote Sam Taylor, the spokesperson, noting that the office would forward applications to early voting clerks “as a courtesy to help the voter.”

“It is not the voter’s fault if a third party put the incorrect return address on an ABBM, so we want to ensure voters are not adversely affected by that,” Taylor said.

This appears to be a departure from the office’s previous stance on applications wrongly sent to its office. The secretary of state’s website previously warned voters against sending applications to its office, noting that “all applications received by this office will be rejected.” That language was removed from the website at the beginning of the month, according to a screenshot of the same page archived by the Wayback Machine.

County election officials receiving the waylaid applications this week are now under a time crunch to process them and reach out to voters if their applications are defective. Hundreds of applications to vote by mail in the primary have been initially rejected in recent weeks after voters did not fill out new ID rules that require them to provide a driver’s license number or partial Social Security number.

Voters can correct the issue but must do so by the Friday deadline for counties to receive applications for the primary election. Otherwise, their application will be finally rejected.

Taylor said the secretary of state’s office had been working to “expedite” the forwarding of applications it received and planned to label those that came to them before the deadline to request mail-in ballots.

The unsolicited mailings come as the Texas attorney general argues in federal court that the restrictions on county election officials in regard to voting by mail are intended to limit “official encouragement” of voting by mail. In a hearing for a related case, a lawyer for the attorney general indicated to a federal judge last week that the state preferred people vote in person even if they qualify to vote by mail.

On Thursday, Blakemore defended the new prohibitions as “guard rails” established by the Legislature following Harris County’s unsuccessful attempt to send applications for mail-in ballots to all of its registered voters in 2020.

“It was that overreach, as well as drive-thru-voting, that brought about SB1,” Blakemore said.

In 2020, Patrick referred to vote-by-mail expansion efforts as a “scam by Democrats to steal the election,” saying there was no reason anyone under 65 should be “able to say I am afraid to go vote” during the pandemic. Patrick himself has used the voting option, opting to vote by mail in a 2007 Houston municipal election and an ensuing runoff.

Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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