Secretary of State issues emergency guidance to protect ballot secrecy

Public records laws in place now make it technically possible to match individuals to the ballots they cast in state elections

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The Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson's office issued emergency guidance to people running elections across the state to protect ballot secrecy. In a memo, her office told county election administrators they could redact more voter information and suggested getting opinions from the Texas Attorney General's office for specific situations.

This comes after a series of reports details how public voter information can be matched with public ballot information to show which candidates individual people voted for.

Voter ID numbers, addresses, voting locations, precinct numbers, and time stamps on ballots can be public records. This emergency

The guidance told election administrators they "must adopt procedures to ensure that any personally identifiable information of a voter that is contained on a ballot is redacted." She cites examples expanding what is currently redacted: voting locations, time stamps, and ballot numbers. The memo reiterates that Texans have the constitutional right to a secret ballot.

The Secretary of State points to a recent Attorney General ruling stemming from Tarrant County stating locations, where voters cast ballots, can be viewed as personal information and must be redacted.

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Clint Ludwig requested from the AG in early June what information can be redacted.

While Tarrant County Elections strives for transparency, we also understand the importance of keeping a voter’s ballot confidential. This is a complex issue with various stakeholders, including myself as Elections Administrator, all of whom have a vested interest in safe and secure elections," Ludwig wrote NBC 5.

Ludwig writes they took proactive measures before the Secretary's guidance, removing and redacting information that could lead to a voter's ballot.         

"That is providing, believe, a short-term solution to this issue," said Christina Adkins from the Secretary of State Elections Division Wednesday at a Texas House committee hearing.

“More importantly, when we’re talking about our presidential election in November, voters can be assured that there are protections in place in Texas law," said Adkins.

Texas Secretary of State and Attorney General's efforts to keep your voter ballot – private. NBC 5 Phil Prazan reports it comes after news broke detailing how it was possible to match up individual people with individual ballots.

Voter data analyst Derek Ryan from Ryan Data and Research tells NBC 5 the process to connect individual ballots to individual people is complicated and only a few people have the know-how and technology to do it - but it is possible.

“It’s an extremely big deal. Our country is founded on the idea that you can go into a polling location and cast a secret ballot," said Ryan.

Ryan says the emergency action from the Secretary of State gives county officials enough guidance to keep ballots secret throughout the 2024 election. He says, however, lawmakers should and probably will make long-term fixes when they return to Austin for the 2025 legislative session next January.

"It’s kind of interesting that in the spirit of transparency we just accidentally went a little too far and now it’s necessary to tweak some things," said Ryan.

A couple of high-profile examples put a spotlight on the situation. The political blog Current Revolt published an article claiming to discover the ballot of former Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi, showing a vote for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and not former President Donald Trump in the March primary.

Rinaldi has declined to comment through a Texas GOP attorney and has threatened legal action against the blog.

Another website claimed to find the ballot of Democratic Congressman Colin Allred, who did not comment to NBC 5.

The loophole came from a series of laws passed after the 2020 election where many voters in Texas urged lawmakers to make more information available to the public for integrity and transparency reasons. Former President Donald Trump's campaign filed many unsuccessful lawsuits skeptical of the results. Several investigations found few credible voting irregularities.

That skepticism, however, had a big impact on Texas lawmakers. Their desire for transparency created a situation where too much information was available to the public, election officials told lawmakers in two committee hearings.

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