Who Killed Online Voter Registration in Texas?

by | May 6, 2015

By Patrick Svitek

A bill to bring online voter registration to Texas is dead thanks to a small but vocal group of officials from the state's largest county, according to the measure's sponsor, state Rep. Celia Israel. But Israel, whose legislation had the backing of a majority of the Texas House, says she's not giving up.

"There's always twists and turns between now and June 1," the Austin Democrat said Saturday, promising to find opportunities to give House Bill 76 a second life.

At a Monday meeting of the House Elections Committee, dozens of people signed up in favor of HB-76, four of whom spoke. However, testimony from a handful of people from Harris County seemed to convince some members of the committee that Texas is not ready for online voter registration, Israel said.

"There were just too many folks out there who would rather believe a partisan official from Harris County as opposed to a nonpartisan state employee who tells you, 'We could do this,'" Israel said, referring to a number of experts the panel called on to ask about the state's capacity for online voter registration.

Under HB-76, Texans with a valid driver's license or state-issued identification card could enter their information online and submit it to sign up to vote. The Department of Public Safety would then match the information with what it has on record for the person.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan was among those who testified against the bill, saying the current system of voter registration works well and does not need changing. Sullivan, who serves as the county's voter registrar, also raised concerns about potential discrepancies in the data that could undermine the voter roll.

Others who spoke against the legislation questioned the security of state software and suggested online sign-up could provide a new opening for voter fraud.

On Saturday, Sullivan denied there was anything political about his testimony. He also brushed off the idea that the bill's opponents from Harris County were coordinating.

"I’ve been in politics a long time," said Sullivan, a Republican. "When you lose an argument, you sometimes go straight to partisan politics as the reason you lost."

Some of the testimony Monday nonetheless took a political tone.

In one tense moment, Alan Vera of the Harris County GOP raised the prospect that the jobs of the "three young Republican" lawmakers on the committee could be in peril if they supported the proposal. The comment drew a rebuke from Democratic Rep. Ron Reynolds, who somewhat sarcastically said he thought Vera's opposition to the bill was not about politics.

The offices of some of the GOP members of the committee did not respond to requests for comment Saturday. But Rep. Mike Schofield of Katy was one of the more skeptical voices on the panel Monday, at one point reminding his colleagues Texans still have to apply in person for a driver's license. It cannot be done online.

"We don’t think it's secure enough for a driver’s license, but we think it’s secure enough for voting?” he asked.

Sullivan, who said he opposed a similar measure last session, could see himself supporting online voter registration if his questions about voter data are addressed.

"I consider myself open to new technology, I consider myself open to new ways of doing business," he said Saturday. "It would be a mischaracterization to say that I am forever opposed to online voter registration."

Israel, meanwhile, is hoping the proposal could make its way onto the floor in the form of an amendment. She said she is confident it could pass the full House if given the opportunity.

HB-76 remains pending in the Elections Committee, as does House Bill 953, an almost identical proposal that also received a hearing Monday. Senate Bill 385, the House bills' companion in the upper chamber, was referred to the State Affairs Committee on Feb. 2 and has not gotten a hearing yet.

Israel first characterized the bill as dead in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

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