Texas voters cast their ballots in the first primary of a critical year

As Texas voters head to polls this year, they’ve had to deal with a slew of election law changes, including limited early voting hours and increased mail-in voting requirements.

Texas was among the 19 states where, in response to baseless claims of voter fraud and the increased use of mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election, GOP-led legislatures enacted a slew of voting restrictions in 2021. Many of those changes will be tested for the first time this year during the critical midterm cycle.

Lone Star State voters have already been dealing with the challenges associated with the new rules as a high rate of mail-in ballot applications and mail-in ballots have been rejected heading into the primary on March 1. Texas Republicans argue the changes will improve the security and integrity of the elections. Voting rights advocates and Democrats worry it will disenfranchise voters, particularly voters of color.

CNN Politics spoke with a diverse group of voters about their experience voting in the primary and their thoughts on the changes.

John Perry Jr. Fresno, Texas

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New restrictions can’t stop voters

John Perry Jr. knows how important voting is. The 72-year-old first cast a ballot in 1969 at the height of the civil rights movement and a poignant time for Black Americans. Perry told CNN that he was inspired to vote from a young age when he had a traumatic encounter with police while playing with friends at a park when he was 17.

“That kind of radicalized me. My hometown was (sic) pretty small Black population. So regularly I and others were the recipients of what I call drive-by racism. They would drive by and roll the windows down and shout out, ‘Go back to Africa,’ ” said Perry, who is originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

The harrowing experience, which left him with a permanent scar over his right eye, led to him becoming civically active, including being involved in voter registration drives and education. Perry doesn’t agree with the new restrictions on voting and said the laws aren’t stopping him, especially as he remembers the struggle Black Americans endured for the right to vote.

“Those people were literally killed, murdered for the right to vote. Sitting in a voter registration line could get you killed, get you fired from your job, your house burned down. So no matter what they're throwing at us right now, nothing compares to that. Now if we can endure that and overcome that, then whatever the state of Texas, Georgia and all these other states, we can get around that too,” Perry said.

Perry, though eligible for mail-in voting, said he would never take that option. He enjoys going in person. This year, mail-in voting has hit a few snags, including high rejection rates and some ballots even going to the wrong office.

“I like the idea of showing up at a polling place, being physically present for it. I've never voted by mail. And I never will,” Perry, a Democrat, told CNN.

Perry voted early, in person at his regular polling place in Fresno, Texas, without issue. Coincidentally, the county where Perry resides, Fort Bend, just renamed its law library after Willie Melton, a civil rights activist who challenged the county’s all-White primaries. The case eventually went to the US Supreme Court and ended the system of all-White primaries in Fort Bend County.

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Sharon Bennett McKinney, Texas

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Unable to vote in the primary

A fractured hip has left Sharon Bennett housebound until a community group is able to add a ramp to her mobile home for her wheelchair.

When she learned earlier this month that a primary was taking place, the McKinney, Texas, resident hoped she could vote by mail. She had difficulty finding information online, and by the time she called the Collin County election office in mid-February, the deadline had passed.

Bennett, 59, is frustrated that the state doesn’t mail information about elections so residents can know what to do. And she’s upset that she will miss the primary.

“How can I get my thoughts out there when I can’t get in there to vote?” said Bennett, a Republican.

Bennett requested the application for a mail-in ballot for the November election. But she’s still worried she’ll be left out of that election too.

“I’m concerned that it won’t get here, and I’m concerned that it won’t get counted correctly,” Bennett said. “I don’t trust it. I don’t want to do it, but I will do it if I have to, if that’s the only way I can vote.”

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Elizabeth Alanis Houston, Texas

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Drive-thru was a great option for those immunocompromised

Elizabeth Alanis is immunocompromised and loved drive-thru voting when it became an option in the 2020 general election amid the pandemic. The 50-year-old teacher said drive-thru voting was easy, efficient and perfect for those who wanted to make their voice heard without putting themselves at risk of Covid-19. However, now the option is banned, and she was forced to vote early in person.

“I really was grateful that they offered it, but now it's no longer going to be a viable choice. I’m probably, from this point forward, going to always try to do early voting so that I don't get caught in a crowd,” Alanis told CNN. Being immunocompromised is not one of the categories for eligibility to vote by mail.

Alanis, who is a Democrat and Mexican American, said she feels the new rules are narrowing voting options, and she, like many other children of immigrants, was “raised by my parents that are firm believers in making your vote count.” Alanis, a teacher and mother to a 16-year-old daughter, worries about the future of voting in her home state.

“I have a daughter who in a couple of years is going to be able to vote and what we're seeing now, just, it's disheartening. … It makes you feel as if it's not going to make it easier for the next generation. And you always want to make things easy, because when things aren't easy for people, they have a tendency not to do them,” said Alanis.

Alanis ended up voting early, a process that took her about 15 minutes. The Texas native was pleased that it didn’t take too long and that there wasn’t a crowd.

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Leonard and Ina Lachmann
Kemah, Texas

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Challenges to voting by mail

After having a smooth time voting by mail in the 2020 presidential election, Leonard and Ina Lachmann planned to do the same in this year’s primary. But it wasn’t so easy this time -- at least not for Ina, 69.

Leonard’s application to vote by mail just showed up one day. He submitted it and received his ballot.

But his wife never received hers. So in late January, the Kemah, Texas, couple searched online how to request an application, filled out a form with her contact information and waited for the application to arrive.

About a week later, Ina received an email that the retired educator almost overlooked. It contained the application that she had to print and complete -- a barrier for those without computers and printers, the couple pointed out.

Then they encountered another problem: Neither the application nor the email listed an address for where to send the form.

Leonard, 70, replied to the email but didn’t receive a response. After several days, he searched online for where to mail applications for Galveston County, and the address popped up.

About a week or so later, the ballot showed up. Ina followed all the instructions, including the new requirement to include either her driver’s license number or the last four digits of her Social Security number on one of the multiple envelopes.

And the last hurdle? They didn’t know how much postage to include. They weighed it on a postal scale, and it came in at just under 2 ounces. So they put on two stamps -- just to make sure it would arrive.

Ina, who registered as a Republican this year, confessed that had her husband not helped her, she would have given up and gone to an early voting location, though she prefers to avoid crowds during Covid because she is diabetic.

The whole process was very cumbersome, said Leonard, a retired mechanical engineer who registered as a Democrat this year.

“I could see a lot of older people who don’t have options to get out and vote, it could be a serious issue for them,” he said.

And just when they thought they had successfully voted, they received “corrected ballots” and a letter from the county clerk informing them that there was some “human error” due to redistricting on their original ballots.

The couple opted not to send back the new ballots since the county said it would count the originals.

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Josh Williams Austin, Texas

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Younger voters are less motivated to vote

For Josh Williams, voting this year was a fun activity that he did with a group of other like-minded students on campus as part of a “Voterama.” The 20-year-old considers himself more involved in politics than others his age. But that wasn’t always the case. Williams first became involved in politics after he started at the University of Texas at Austin, where he continuously met officials in local government and politically minded students on campus.

“That makes a big change where, like, you're actually seeing the people that you're voting for, and like speaking to them and knowing them as a person, not just a list of policies. That helped kind of bring me into [politics] a lot,” Williams told CNN.

Williams voted early and is especially interested in the local races this year as he has been able to talk to some of the candidates running. The university student said he has been following the candidates and their issues closely ahead of the primary.

He also noted that civic involvement and voting aren’t always priorities for students in college.

“Just kind of being young, when we're on campus and stuff, it's not always the priority -- what's going on with politics and stuff like that. There's definitely a feeling of, like, we have a lot less voice than other groups, like older generations,” said Williams, who is a registered Democrat and identifies as progressive.

The San Antonio native said that though he hasn’t personally had issues with the new voting changes, he has seen how some older voters have struggled with their mail-in ballots this year.

“A lot of them are having trouble with getting approved for [mail-in ballots] and there's not a lot of information about what's going on with it. I spoke to several people where they qualified to vote by mail but it was never explained to them how it works,” said Williams.

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Jose Zapata Jr. Houston, Texas

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Never had issues voting

Jose Zapata Jr. is Mexican American and a proud voter who has been casting a ballot for decades. Zapata told CNN that voting was instilled in him from a young age when his parents would take him along to polling locations.

“I got my voting chops from my parents. When I was a kid, my mom would take me with her to go to the voting booths to go vote. I saw my parents vote, and I continue to do the same thing,” said Zapata, who leans Republican.

The Harris County resident told CNN that he has never had an issue voting and always votes early and in person. Zapata went to vote on February 14, the first day of early voting, which under the new law is now limited to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“From the moment that I walked into the hotel to the moment I walked out to the same place, and it was 8 minutes, 59 seconds, there were only two people in there. And they had about 20 voting machines ready to go,” said Zapata.

Zapata said he agrees with the election law changes because they are in line with voting procedures that were in place pre-pandemic.

“I agree with it. For example, like the drop boxes and the in-car voting [drive-thru voting] that they recently had in Harris County. I do understand they did that because of Covid. But, you know, those aren't the rules that Texas had before. They never had them before. It's my opinion, if you give somebody an inch, they take a mile,” said the 47-year-old Texan.

He also argues that the new changes don’t affect minority voters any more significantly than other groups because his friends and family haven’t had any issues past or present.

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Albert Wise Lubbock, Texas

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Harder for the disabled

Albert Wise, who lives in Lubbock, Texas, has voted by mail for the last three years after his back injury worsened and left him disabled. But this year, his ballot didn’t arrive, so he had to go to his local supermarket on February 18 to cast his vote

There, Wise was told that because of the new voting laws, which he considers restrictive, he would have to reapply to vote by mail.

That did not sit well with the Vietnam-era veteran, who served in the Navy and then worked as a church pastor before retiring.

“It pains me to think of all the disabled people who vote absentee that may be excluded from this and future elections because no one informed us our voting status was changed,” said Wise, 67, a lifelong Republican who now works part time as a hospice chaplain. “There was no election fraud in Texas during the past election, but our elected officials have made a conscious decision to exclude as many voters as they can. It’s a shame that will come by the canceling of disabled, veterans and elderly voters.”

Wise said he’s rarely missed casting a ballot in an election of any kind. And he likes voting by mail because it allows him to research who is running for office.

When he and his family lived in California, he received a booklet in the mail with information about the candidates and proposals on the ballot. Texas doesn’t provide that.

“We should make voting as convenient as possible, while verifying a person’s identity,” Wise said.

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Jenny Barry Austin, Texas

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Assistance should be available

Although Jenny Barry’s elderly mother is still able to vote on her own, Barry envisions that one day she will have to help her mom.

Under the new Texas law, Barry would have to fill out a form and sign an oath pledging to obey certain limits to her assistance, including not trying to influence her mother’s vote.

“That’s crazy,” said Barry, 48, a paralegal, recalling how her uncle used to help his mother vote. “Assistance should be granted if assistance is needed. Restricting the vote is contrary to the ideals that we have in our society, which is allowing a free and fair vote.”

This provision is among the changes that Barry thinks will make it harder for some Texans, particularly non-Whites, to cast ballots. She doesn’t think Republicans should be campaigning on their efforts to limit voting rights.

As for her own experience, Barry, who lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and 13-year-old daughter, did not have an issue voting early this year. She thought the hours -- 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- were reasonable, and there were no lines at her polling location, which was at a church.

Barry has voted in national, state and local elections since she was 18. She considers herself an independent but is registered as a Democrat.

“I like to have an opinion, and I don’t feel you can have an opinion if you don’t vote,” she said.

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Robin Schofield
Collin County, Texas

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Election obstacles can be overcome

Robin Schofield is originally from New Zealand but has been in the US for more than 30 years.

Schofield said he doesn’t understand the controversy surrounding the changes. He described the criticism as “partisan noise.” Particularly, with mail-in ballots, the Collin County resident said there are alternatives like early voting for those unable to navigate the new rules. Texas early voting ran from February 14 to 25 this year.

The conservative also said that there are many voting locations in his county and for those worried about showing photo ID at a polling location, there are seven forms of ID that a voter can present when showing up in person.

“So just from my perspective, at the front end of this voting process, it's extraordinarily well controlled. They [election workers] bend over backwards for anyone who wants to vote and has registered and is in a position legally to vote. They go to extraordinary measures to give them access and to count their vote,” Schofield said.

The 77-year-old also said he thinks people should feel empowered to vote and not complain about the changes. Schofield voted early and without a problem. He served as an election clerk for early voting and will be working on the day of the primary.

“But to me, it's just, people complain about voting rights and so forth. Why don't they get off their couch and go down and cast it [a ballot]. This is their one opportunity to have a say in representation,” Schofield said.

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Garry Featherstone McKinney, Texas

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Difficult to find election information

It’s not hard for Garry Featherstone to learn who is running for city council, judge or other local office. There are lawn signs just down the block from his McKinney, Texas, home. But finding out where to vote? That’s much more difficult, he told CNN.

“It’s ironic that there is all this advertising out there, but then I can’t figure out when can I vote early or how do I vote early,” said Featherstone, 54, a moderate Democrat and self-proclaimed newsaholic. “It feels very covert and elusive.”

The global supply chain consultant eventually found his polling location after searching online and plans to vote on March 1.

Featherstone, who moved to Texas in 2018 after living in Colorado and Northern California for decades, had to educate himself on the primary voting process. He would prefer to vote by mail since it’s more convenient and safer for him because he has pre-existing conditions.

But his interaction with Collin County in the 2020 election was eye-opening. He requested a mail-in ballot because he didn’t want to stand in line during the Covid-19 pandemic but never received one. He called the county but was “blown away” by the response -- an official didn’t know when, or if, the ballots would be sent.

“I would take advantage of mail-in voting if I could, but I don’t trust it, not in Texas,” said Featherstone, noting he’s wary of early voting too.

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Leila Nii Central Texas

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Stifling the progressive vote

Between the voting law changes and redistricting, Texas Republicans are making it harder for those with other political views to have a voice, said Leila Nii, 38, who lives in central Texas.

While she was able to make it to the polls this year, Nii said the new voting rules make it more difficult for her friends who are single mothers or work multiple jobs to cast a ballot. The polls are only open until 7 p.m. in her area, which isn’t late enough for some of them.

Several also missed their opportunity to vote in the 2020 presidential election because of the limited early voting locations in her county.

“It is hard not to feel suppressed in this area when they make it difficult for the younger generations here to vote,” said Nii, who works in medical billing.

“There are people here, even in small-town Texas, that want progressive change, but our voices are limited,” the native Texan said.

Elections can make a difference in the laws a state approves, Nii said.

“It’s alarming and sad to me that as a 38-year-old woman, I have less rights at 38 in Texas than I had at 18,” said Nii, who identifies as Asian American Pacific Islander. “I have participated and voted the entire time I’ve been able to, but it never seems to make a dent.”

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