Political signs touting candidates in races from Texas Senate to Burnet County clerk adorn a fence on U.S. 281 at the Park Road 4 intersection between Burnet and Marble Falls. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman
The March 1 primary elections will be the first affected by new voting laws approved by a special session of the Texas Legislature last year. Most of the changes will be felt behind the scenes by county voting officials with little impact on in-person voting, according to those in charge of elections in Burnet and Llano counties.
“Almost every day I hear something I didn’t know about,” said Llano County Elections Administrator Cindy Ware as she prepared for the upcoming primaries. “This legislative session made changes that are more complicated than voter ID by a mile.”
Ware was referring to new voter identification laws that went into effect in 2018. Those laws were approved by the 85th session of the Texas Legislature in 2017.
“There have certainly been some changes,” said Burnet County Elections Administrator Doug Ferguson. “But voting in person should feel the same with no new steps or rules for the voters.”
Senate Bill 1 came out of the second of three special sessions following the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021. A legislative battle over proposed changes made national news when Democrats broke quorum by leaving the state during the regular session and then again during the first special session to prevent a vote. A bill finally passed in the second special session.
The most impact will be felt by voters using mail-in, or absentee ballots. In previous years, the county clerk or county elections administrator could mail absentee ballot request applications to registered voters who didn’t request one. Ware said Llano County maintained a “courtesy list” for those who usually needed a mail-in ballot because she believed it was “our job to help voters.”
Neither she nor any government official can do that anymore.
“Now, we cannot provide them with an application unless the voter, and only the voter, requests it,” Ware said. “They cannot come into the office and pick up one for their spouse or parents. One application given to the requestor only.”
Political parties and political candidates can continue to send out unsolicited or unrequested applications to vote by mail.
Identification requirements for mail-in voting also have changed. Previously, voters simply signed the application and then their ballot. Election officials would compare the signatures as verification before mailing a ballot to the voter.
Voters requesting a mail-in ballot must now include one of several additional pieces of identification: either a Texas driver’s license number, a Texas personal identification number (issued by the Department of Public Safety), or an election identification certificate number (also issued by the DPS).
If a person doesn’t have any of those, they can enter the last four digits of their Social Security number.
The problem here is that the identification number submitted with the mail-in ballot must match what is in the voter’s file. If the number on file is the voter’s Social Security number and they turn in their driver’s license number on the application, the ballot request could be rejected.
Ferguson recommends that people enter both an ID number and the last four digits of their Social Security number on the applications.
“One of these ID numbers has to match what we have in our voter registration records for that voter,” he said. “The voter does not need to try and remember which number they used on the application if they use both.”
The same holds true when submitting a mail-in ballot.
“I anticipate a lot of calls from confused mail ballot voters,” Ferguson said. “But we will be ready to work with those voters to make it go smoothly.”
A new ballot tracking system set up by the Texas Secretary of State’s office allows voters to check online when the application has been received and whether it has been accepted or rejected. Type in “Texas vote by mail” in a search engine to find the vote-by-mail webpage, which has a link to the tracker.
The most significant changes in voting laws were aimed at large urban areas such as Harris County. During the November 2020 general election, Houston officials set up 24-hour and drive-through voting sites to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. A new state law prohibits 24-hour voting by limiting early voting hours to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., no longer. Election Day hours remain 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Curbside voting for residents who qualify remains available. Individuals unable to enter the polling site without risking their health can request curbside voting. An election officer will bring ballots to qualified voters in their cars or to the front entrance of the polling place. To vote curbside, call ahead to your county’s elections office to let officials know.
“Obviously, not just anyone who wants to can vote curbside,” Ferguson said.
One change in-person voters might notice at some precincts, though probably not in Llano or Burnet counties, is an increase in poll watcher activity. Poll watchers, who must complete a Texas Secretary of State training program, represent a political party or a candidate and can come into a polling place to monitor activity. The new legislation allows poll watchers more freedom at the polling sites, including approaching a poll worker and voter when the voter calls the worker to a booth for assistance.
Both Ware and Ferguson pledged to continue doing everything they can to make sure the voting process in their counties runs smoothly.
“The most important thing I would like our voters to know is we are working extremely hard to meet new legislative mandates,” Ware said.
Burnet County residents with questions regarding the elections and voting can visit the Burnet County Elections website at burnetcountyelections.com or call 512-715-5288.