Texas Fights Court-Ordered Voter Registration Reforms

by | May 21, 2018

By Chuck Lindell

After losing a legal fight over the way Texas handles online voter registration, state lawyers are arguing that fixes proposed by a civil rights group go too far and should be rejected.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio had given both sides until Thursday to submit plans that will let Texans easily register to vote when they obtain or renew a driver's license on the Department of Public Safety website.

The current system violates the National Voter Registration Act's motor-voter provision, Garcia ruled, because online users are directed to a separate page run by the Texas secretary of state, where they must download a voter registration form, print it out and mail it to their county registrar.

Lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project submitted a seven-page list of solutions that would give DPS 45 days to create a system that would ask online users if they want to register, or update their address on voter rolls, with every driver's license transaction.

The organization's plan, designed to make voter registration easier for the estimated 1.5 million Texans who handle driver's license transactions online each year, would require DPS to send the information to the secretary of state's office, which would forward it to county voter registrars.

Instead of submitting a correction plan, however, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton delivered a list of objections to the civil rights group's proposals, saying they are unworkable and go beyond what is required by federal law.

First, Paxton said, 45 days is not enough time to change online procedures. The state's current online vendor cannot complete changes before its contract expires Sept. 1, and the new vendor would need 90 days to create a process, he said.

Second, many of the proposed fixes go beyond what is required by the motor-voter provision, including calls for a statewide public education campaign on the new online process that must be approved by lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project, he said.

Federal law "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 told the judge in a late Thursday filing.

Beth Stevens, voting rights director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, accused state lawyers of dragging their feet past the November election.

"Unfortunately, last night we saw that the state is not willing to come to the table in good faith. Their proposed solution would not even begin to be implemented until after this year's general election, guaranteeing that thousands more will lose their opportunity to cast a ballot that counts," Stevens said Friday. "This is unacceptable."

Garcia announced in April that he will rule in favor of the civil rights group, which sued Texas on behalf of voters who were not given the chance to register online, without the need for a trial.

The judge, appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, followed last week by issuing a 61-page opinion that said federal law requires DPS to give Texans the chance to register to vote -- or to update voting records to reflect a change of address -- when they renew, update or obtain a driver's license.

Those who conduct business at a DPS office are offered one-stop voter registration services, but online users must take several additional steps -- a practice that falls far short of the 1993 law's motor-voter provision, enacted to increase voter participation by simplifying the registration process, Garcia said.

Paxton has not discussed his options, but if the judge orders specific changes to the Texas registration process, the civil rights group expects him to appeal.

(c)2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas