September 23, 2019

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Texas Resists Changes to its Online Voter Registration System

Texas Online Voter Registration

A civil rights group has offered proposals for a new online voting system that, according to state Attorney General Ken Paxton, goes way beyond what is required. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia asked both plaintiffs and the defendant to draw up plans for new online voter registration procedures that would make it easy for drivers to register to vote when renewing their driver’s license. The state currently employs a system that directs online users renewing their license to the secretary of state’s website. Once there, users must download a document, which they must then mail to the county registrar. Garcia ruled that this procedure violates the motor-voter provision of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to set up a system allowing people to register while renewing their license. A recent appeals court ruling could complicate matters.

Solutions

Following the judge’s request, the Texas Civil Rights Project submitted several pages of solutions, which would require the DPS website to ask users if they would like to register to vote or update their address on the voter registration rolls. The civil rights group asked DPS to do this within 45 days.

“For too long, the state of Texas has ignored federal voting rights laws intended to ensure that all eligible voters have an opportunity to register to vote,” said Beth Stevens, a leader at the Texas Civil Rights Project. She continued, “We look forward to seeing deep changes in [the Texas Department of Public Safety’s] voter registration practices in the coming months, affecting well over a million Texans every year.”

Currently, those who renew their license in person can register to vote immediately, but online users must go through a complicated process involving snail mail in order to register. This, Garcia opined, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and the Motor Voter Act.

Paxton’s Concerns

AG Ken Paxton took issue with the request, saying the 45-day limit is far too stringent because the current online vendor’s contract goes up on September 1st and the new vendor would need at least 90 days to complete the changes. Paxton added that the proposals go well beyond the requirements of federal law, arguing that the law does not give the court’s free reign to impose whatever procedures they see fit. Paxton also took issue with a court-ordered public education system that would inform residents about the new voting registration procedures.

The National Voter Registration Act “does not give federal courts — and certainly does not give any plaintiff’s counsel — carte blanche to order the state to do anything they think may be beneficial,” Paxton wrote in a court filing. It should be noted that Paxton did not make any new proposals; he merely criticized the ones on the table.

Appeals Court

Paxton got his wish in late May, when the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals intervened on the matter and blocked Garcia’s court order from taking effect while the appeals process is underway. It could be months before the court reaches a decision, so it isn’t certain whether the voting system will be set up in time for the November election.

Leading up to the appeals court’s decision and with a dramatic flair, Paxton said: “An emergency stay is necessary to maintain Texas’ current legislatively enacted voter registration procedures while the 5th Circuit reviews our case.” He continued, “The district court’s flawed ruling goes way beyond what federal law requires.”

Lack of a Plan

When arguing before Judge Garcia, the state’s attorneys continually pressed that they believed the court should not impose any remedy. In their eyes, the court should only ask the state to comply with federal laws; anything beyond that constitutes an overreach of judicial authority. The attorneys hinted at a possible solution, saying that a remedy “must be narrowly tailored” to the exact problem before the court. Furthermore, the attorneys argued, a solution must show “adequate sensitivity to the principles of federalism.”

But without any concrete proposals, it isn’t clear whether the state will actually do anything to alter its current system. As Mimi Marziani, President of the Texas Civil Rights Project, has said: “They’re continuing to take the position that they didn’t do anything wrong, but that’s not where we are in this lawsuit. The court has found that they did something wrong.”

About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.

Over the past few years, Sean has been working as a content writer, focusing primarily on the ways in which unequal power distribution can negatively affect consumers, workers and “everyday people,” more broadly. He writes for a number of websites including AccidentAttorneys.org, PersonalInjury.com, AmericanLegalNews.com and others.