Texas election workers provide practical and emotional support to confused voters
Inside a call center in a downtown Houston building, a team of election workers sits across from each other in rows of sparsely decorated grey cubicles. It's one week before the first statewide election since Texas enacted sweeping changes to its voting laws, and things are hectic.
"The phone is ringing back to back to back pretty much with concerned voters wanting to know where their ballots are and what's the status on their applications," said Angela Washington, a call center clerk.
In January alone, Washington and the 14 other workers in the call center received 8,000 calls from people who wanted help navigating the voting process.
Thousands of rejected mail-in ballots prior to the March 1 primary left some voters unsure how and whether they will be able to participate, including many people with disabilities and senior citizens, who are among those eligible to vote by mail.
In Harris County, home to Houston and the state's most populous county, 40% of mail-in ballot applications were flagged for rejection.
Supporters of the state's new voting law say it is intended to restore voter confidence in elections. But some elections officials say it is just causing widespread confusion.
"It breaks my heart to see that they were rejected for various reasons," Washington said. "At that point, it's a matter of trying to find them a location where they can go [vote] in person."
ID rules are a big source of confusion
The law now requires voters who qualify for mail-in voting to provide either their driver's license number or a partial Social Security number. That number must match what is on file in their voter registration record. So if a voter registered decades ago with their Social Security number but applied this year using their driver's license instead, they'd be rejected.
Washington said she could understand why some callers are frustrated, even angry.
"I just listen, I comfort them as much as I can and some of them just need to know that somebody cares on the other end," she said.
Nayda Arnold, who also works at the call center, said it can be upsetting when she's confronted with an emotional voter.
"But most of the time I've found that when they're upset, it's because they don't understand," she said, adding that means staying on the phone as long as it takes to make every caller feel comfortable.
The rollout of the law, which took effect in December, is burdening local election workers who are already stretched thin.
"Every day, they are on a phone call where they break down crying. We have people quit almost every week," said Isabel Longoria, the elections administrator in Harris County. She has been vocal about the challenges that this law – known as Senate Bill 1 – has caused.
"The hours are too much, the stress is too much, the being questioned by the public is too much, the feeling like we're shouting into a void where no one is listening is too much," she said.
Republicans argue that voting restrictions like those included in Senate Bill 1 make it easier to vote and harder to cheat, despite no widespread evidence of voter fraud.
Texas Secretary of State John Scott's office did not respond to an NPR request for comment. But last month, he pushed back against criticism that the mail-in voting process was confusing for voters.
"It's the first time for this office to administer an application to ballot by mail the way it is happening, so I think there's a little bit of a learning curve that's going on," he told Spectrum News.
But Longoria says that's callous.
"Your core rights in this country should never be someone else's learning curve," she said.
Some Texans see intentional hurdles to vote
The law's changes are not limited to identification requirements. It also includes a slew of other restrictions, including banning drive-through voting and 24-hour voting sites, things that Harris County implemented in 2020 to help people vote more easily and safely during the pandemic.
"It's like, we finally make some progress, and then we have the rug pulled out from underneath us," said Lydia Nunez Landry, who lives in a suburb of Houston. "It just kind of feels like they want to discourage us from voting."
Nunez Landry has a progressive and currently untreatable form of muscular dystrophy. Because of the risks of the coronavirus, she is not leaving her home much. But due to confusion surrounding mail-in voting, she feels she has to vote in person to ensure that her vote is counted.
"I'm just too afraid to risk it," Nunez Landry said.
She also worries about the expanded rights of partisan poll watchers under the new law, which allows them "free movement" in most areas of polling places.
"That really bothers me, having people scrutinize or surveil me," she said. "I don't think it should be the case for disabled people to be treated that way, or any marginalized group."
Other provisions of the law directly focus on voters with disabilities, and advocates say those have created a lot of confusion, particularly around what type of assistance a person with disabilities may access when voting.
"We're here in the middle of an election cycle, where people with disabilities and older adults are scared to vote in person, because we just don't know what that means for us," said Gabe Cazares, the director of the Houston Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities.
Cazares said the law opens up the door for attendants who assist voters to face criminal penalties, but that there's no clarity on what constitutes a violation.
That's led to some personal care attendants worrying about "being criminally liable for providing assistance that they ordinarily provide to people with disabilities," he said.
Cazares also worries that people with disabilities that are not visible may face new challenges while voting.
"It's very easy to qualify a disability when you're someone who looks like me. You can look into my eyes and see that I am a blind person," he said. "But there are folks with disabilities where those are not obvious. And we are not in the business of policing disability."
Texas is one of 18 states that passed more restrictive voting laws after the 2020 presidential election. James Slattery, a senior staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights project, said the rollout of the law here could provide a preview of what's to come across the country.
"Texas is not the only state that passed a voter suppression bill like this," Slattery said. "It is merely the first to have a primary under its new law, and there's no reason to think it's going to go any better in any of the other states where they did something similar."
'I don't get to fail at this'
In Fort Bend County, 73-year-old Lydia Ozuna painstakingly documents each step in her voting process, in the hopes of educating others.
But this year, even she got tripped up when she filled out an application to vote by mail. Ozuna unintentionally used an outdated application form, one that did not have the newly-required fields for including a driver's license number or partial social security number.
Ozuna found out immediately because she filed her application in person. Had she mailed it in, she said, she wouldn't have known until someone from her local elections office reached her by phone or mail to tell her that she'd made a mistake.
Ozuna, who leads an anti-gerrymandering group, grew up watching her father pay poll taxes so that he could vote.
"Our state has a history of violating the civil rights of its citizens. I lived it as a kid," she said.
Ozuna said she sees shades of that history today.
"I think the point is to just have the few people who have the know-how be the ones to vote, and everyone else stay home," she said. "And that's a grim prospect."
Back at the Harris County elections office, Isabel Longoria says that prospect is why she and her team keep working through burnout, and even their own frustrations with how the rollout has gone.
"If I have everyone quit tomorrow in elections, democracy is not happening. I don't get to fail at this job, and I think that's what everyone on my team understands, who does still find another day to work," she said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.