Thousands of mail-in ballots returned by voters in Texas’ third-largest county have a printing defect that keeps them from being counted, forcing election workers to “remake” duplicate ballots by hand—a process that is raising concerns about election integrity.

Tarrant County election workers began processing mail-in ballots last week. Almost 89,000 of the county’s 1.2 million registered voters requested mail ballots for the November presidential election. Over 61,000 filled-out ballots have already been returned.

“We started noticing about a third of them were being rejected by the scanners,” Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told county commissioners Tuesday. “If we have close to 60,000 returned and the rate is a third, we’re going to have 20,000 remakes to do.”

“Remakes” happen when a voted ballot can’t be scanned because it is defective or damaged. The votes are then copied by election workers onto a new ballot. In this case, Garcia said printed bar codes used to certify the ballots “are not 100 percent legible 100 percent of the time to the scanner.”

He said remaking a defective ballot into a readable ballot is a standard problem nationwide.

“The ballot board is going to replicate those to clean copies so they can be counted,” he said. “That is the process outlined in the law.”

The early voting ballot board is an appointed group of election workers chosen by local political parties and tasked with qualifying, processing, and counting mail-in ballots.

“It’s certainly a lot more volume than we expected,” Garcia said. “Usually the board has to make hundreds of remakes. We’re talking about probably tens of thousands if the rate stays this way.”

Our goal here is to make sure we don’t improvise, but protect the integrity of the ballot and follow the process outlined in the law, which is to use the remake to correct defective ballots that cannot be counted in the automated way.

“Protecting the integrity of all ballots is our No. 1 issue,” Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Rick Barnes told Texas Scorecard Tuesday. “We don’t believe the process proposed was to meet the standard of integrity.”

Tarrant’s 80-member ballot board includes a mix of Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians. Garcia said they are working in groups of 20-25 at a time in a room that is confined and safely secured.

“The integrity of the ballot is the No. 1 priority, and there’s been a lot of restrictions placed on who has access to that room,” said County Judge Glen Whitley.

Those security restrictions can make it difficult for citizens serving as volunteer poll watchers to observe the process. Ballot board members generally work in bipartisan pairs, but recreating thousands of ballots in a short time is a process vulnerable to mistakes if not outright cheating.

Barnes said the Republican Party will be deploying poll watchers to make sure the proceedings are transparent to the public. “I also have to answer to the people on the ballot,” he said.

“For years, the Democrat Party has worked to expand the mail-in ballot program,” Barnes added in a press statement. “Earlier this year, they sued the State of Texas in attempt to do just that. If they had been successful, we would be talking about a much more expansive problem than we are today.”

Still, mail ballot requests this year are double the numbers in 2018 and 2016, due at least in part to voters’ concerns about the Chinese coronavirus. But in-person voting is up too, already well over 2016’s total turnout with four more days of voting left.

Garcia said voters can continue to return their mail-in ballots to the elections office and they will be counted.

“We will work with the ballot board to solve the problem we have,” he said, adding he expects the majority of defective ballots will be processed and counted by election night.

Mail-in ballots must be received by the elections office by 7:00 p.m. on November 3 (Election Day) if not postmarked, or November 4 at 5:00 p.m. if postmarked by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day at the location of the election (unless overseas or military voter deadlines apply).

The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot has passed.

In-person early voting is underway now through October 30.

Voters can report election-related issues to their county elections office, the Texas Secretary of State’s Elections Division, and local or state party officials. They can also contact election integrity organization Direct Action Texas at 877-267-VOTE.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.