When voters arrived at their polling place on March 1 in Azle, Texas, a small city outside of Fort Worth, they saw a framed, printed sign with standard voting instructions: no phones, printed materials allowed. Taped to it was another handwritten sign that read: “Sorry — No Democrat voting (not staffed).”
More than 170 election workers in the county dropped out at the last minute, Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Allison Campolo told The Intercept. The party did not know how many voters had been stopped from voting at the county’s Azle location that day. Across the state, Campolo said, both parties had trouble finding election workers on primary day. But Tarrant County experienced “an extreme number of last minute drop offs of available election judges.”
According to the Texas Tribune, more than a dozen polling locations in Tarrant County were closed for several hours due to staffing shortages among election judges. Texas is one of several states — also including Missouri, Maryland, and Colorado — to employ election judges to open and run poll locations, manage poll workers, and settle disputes. Other states call these officials “poll workers” or “election clerks,” but in Texas, where election judges have been used for decades, they’re partisan, and during primary elections, they are appointed by the chair of the county political party holding the primary. Numerous states had issues with recruiting poll workers at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the number of jurisdictions that reported difficulty in finding enough poll workers increased by 5 percent between the 2016 and 2018 elections. But the number of sudden dropouts in Tarrant County this month was unusual, according to Campolo.
Many of the difficulties with recruiting and retaining election workers for this month’s primary stemmed from Texas’s new voting law, known as S.B. 1, Parker County Democratic Party Chair Kay Parr told The Intercept. At least 19 states passed restrictive voting measures in the year after the 2020 election, which Republican officials continue to falsely claim was stolen, but S.B. 1 is one of the nation’s most restrictive. Enacted by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott late last year, the law bans drive-thru voting, implements new ID requirements for mail voting, ends 24-hour voting, and expands the power of poll watchers. It also puts election officials at risk of committing a felony while carrying out their job duties.
S.B. 1 prohibits officials from “soliciting” or distributing mail ballot applications to people who haven’t requested them, meaning that answering questions about filling out a mail ballot or helping voters submit them could now be considered crimes — punishable by up to two years in jail and $10,000 in fines. In the eyes of the election judges, Parr said, the law threatens “legal liability for human error.”
Beyond that, with the elimination of mask mandates in most of the United States — including Texas — working the polls can be hazardous for the temporary staffers, many of whom are elderly or retired, amid the ongoing pandemic. They are often required to work for more than 14 hours on election days, a taxing shift for any worker. The new law only compounds the difficulty, adding considerable risk to a job that requires long hours, entails tedious duties, and pays minimum wage.
Azle sits on the county line between Tarrant and Parker counties, and both counties have their own rules for designating election officials from either party to assist voters. Parker didn’t have issues on primary day, Parr said, but several voters who weren’t able to vote in Tarrant came to the Azle poll site, about a five-minute drive away, on the Parker County side to try to cast their ballots.
Joe Grizzard, an alternate Democratic election judge at the Parker County polling location in Azle, said he had seen a posting prior to primary day saying that the Tarrant County elections office still needed poll workers. And he was worried about the impact the new law would have on election workers.
The county elections office “knew they had problems and they were trying to fix them but they didn’t fix them in time,” said Grizzard, who has been an election judge for five years. “I still have concerns for legal liability for telling someone something wrong or helping someone do something that I’m not authorized to do because of the change in the laws.”
Other aspects of the new Texas law made it harder to vote even before primary day. Last month, Texas election officials reported that thousands of mail ballots across the state were rejected at unprecedented rates because many people did not include the correct ID number on their envelope, as required by the new law. The number had to match the one they used on their voter registration, whether that was a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number. Harris County, the most populous in the state, rejected 35 percent of ballots received by the mail ballot deadline, Reuters reported, compared to a rejection rate between 5 and 10 percent in recent years. Applications for mail ballots were also rejected at similar rates due to missing or incorrect ID numbers.
The Department of Justice sued Texas over S.B. 1 in November, arguing that the law would “disenfranchise some eligible mail voters based on paperwork errors or omissions immaterial to their qualifications to vote.” The case is expected to conclude before the general election, but the timeline is still in flux. In December, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar, filed a complaint in federal court against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Both women — represented by the Harris County Attorney’s Office, outside counsel, and the Brennan Center — argued that the provision that criminalizes helping someone vote by mail criminalizes constitutionally protected speech.
Several weeks before the primary, an appeals court stayed an injunction against the portion of S.B. 1 that criminalizes solicitation of mail ballots. The matter is still pending in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Unless courts reinstate the injunction, the problems are likely to persist through the runoff and the general election in November, said Andrew Garber, a fellow with the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections program. “We’re going to continue to see mail ballots rejected at high rates because it’s confusing,” he told The Intercept. “People are going to continue to be confused, fill out the wrong form, miss information on the form that could be resolved if the qualified election officials were able to print out public notices and preemptively help people do that.”
Texas’s law was designed “to create this exact disenfranchising outcome,” Garber said, and similar problems are likely to arise in at least 18 other states — including Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Iowa — that joined Texas in passing restrictive new voting laws. “It makes the process of voting harder so that the end result is fewer people can vote.”
The shortage of poll workers has “certainly been made worse in Texas by some of the laws that have been passed,” according to Parr. “Our poll workers have fear of being sued now because of all of the national attention that voting got with the last election and the lies about the voter fraud. It’s harder for us to get poll workers. And that, combined with the lies and Covid, it’s made it much more difficult for us to get the experienced judges that we need for our poll sites for both parties.”