(TNS) — From the quiet hum of his office at Springdale General, a sprawling East Austin campus for the creative class, 30-year-old Jeremy Smith is spearheading a pioneering effort to streamline the way Democrats register voters.
Even as billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg is pledging to spend $15 million to $20 million early this year to try to register a half million new Democratic voters in Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin, Smith believes he can do a lot more for a lot less.
"I think we can register 5 million voters for $3 million," Smith said. "Everybody thinks that it costs more than it does, because they're used to the old way of thinking about it."
Since March 2018, Smith, who grew up in Grapevine, graduated from West Point, studied epidemiology as a Marshall Scholar at Imperial College London and served as an Army combat engineer in Afghanistan, has been devising and refining methods to more simply and effectively register voters, and to find citizens who are either unregistered or whose registrations lapsed when they moved between counties or states, all with free web-based applications — Register2Vote and MapTheVote — that are available to anyone, regardless of party.
But they are being used thus far by a cadre of Democrats seeking to win in congressional and state House seats long held by Republicans. Democrats say the new tools hold promise for making inroads in a rapidly changing Texas.
Register2Vote, the nonprofit Smith launched in spring 2018, proved its mettle in a hectic eight weeks leading up to the October registration deadline for the 2018 general election, mailing 529,000 forms to folks in every congressional district in Texas, targeting young people, single women, people of color and those who recently moved and may not have re-registered or even known that they had to.
It was a homemade effort executed by a volunteer army and mostly paid for by Smith's savings from his time in the Army.
The result: "We registered 156,000 new people who had not been registered and 112,000 voted, which is a 72% turnout rate," Smith said. That is 25 points higher than the average turnout rate of registered voters.
"Our results were one of the most successful voter registration interventions that has ever been tried and we did it cheaper than it was ever done," Smith said.
The cost per vote: 54 cents, he estimates. The cost per vote for those voters who would not otherwise have registered to vote: $2.70 per vote.
As Texas and the nation heads into an epic 2020 election battle that appears almost certain to break turnout records, the first skirmishes will be over registration efforts. And the efficacy of innovations like what Smith has developed will be tested, nowhere more so than on his home turf.
The next proving ground is here and now, with a Feb. 3 registration deadline for voting in the March 3 primaries in contests for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the state Legislature that ultimately will determine if control of the Texas House.
The Texas Democratic Party, which shares credit for Smith's brainchild, is sold on what he has created.
"I think it's going to be a game changer," said Glen Maxey, director of legislative affairs and voter registration guru for the Texas Democratic Party. "It's totally novel. Nobody's got it at that level."
In Afghanistan, Smith was responsible for removing land mines and improvised explosive devices, clearing booby traps, rescuing hostages, counterterrorism and special operations.
After five-and-a-half years of active duty, Smith managed Hillary Clinton's voter registration and voter protection operations in Florida and anticipated joining her national security transition team.
Instead, Smith worked for Doug Jones' successful Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate in Alabama and then applied for a job with the Texas Democratic Party.
Sizing up his talents at his March 11, 2018, interview, Smith was offered not a job but a challenge: create a nonprofit voter registration system that would come as close to online voter registration as Texas statute would allow.
Texas is one of a dozen states without online voter registration. Instead, the state boasts an arcane system all its own.
"There's a law called the volunteer deputy registrar law," Smith said. "It's unique In Texas, the only state that you need to be deputized by a county official in order to help your neighbor register and you have to do it by the county of the person you're helping."
It can get complicated and if you make a mistake, "you just committed a felony," Smith said.
National voter registration groups avoided Texas. Local organizations were intimidated.
Democrats say the lack of online voter registration contributed to the state's notoriously low rate of voter turnout, though, with a huge surge in turnout in 2018's midterm election, Texas, perennially at the bottom, performed better than 10 states. Not great, but much better.
The Register2Vote site streamlines registration in easy steps: It allows you to check if you are registered at your current address. If not, you fill out an application, which will be sent to you mostly filled out at no charge. All you have to do is sign it, put it into the accompanying postage-paid envelope pre-addressed to your county registrar and drop it in the mail.
"They are certifying their information, they are signing it, but every hurdle has been knocked down," Smith said. Originally developed for Texas, it now works in every state.
By following the postal bar code, Register2Vote knows if you returned the application, or if you need a follow-up text, call or knock on the door.
"Like any important innovation, it's beautifully simple," said Democrat Mike Siegel, an Austin attorney who ran against U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, in 2018, and is in a three-way primary to face McCaul again in 2020.
Maxey connected Smith with Madeline Eden of Bastrop, the chief technology officer for a block chain company, who had finished fourth in the March 2018 Democratic primary against Siegel, and who joined forces with Smith as Register2Vote's technical director. She's now going to apply the new methods as a candidate in state House District 17 east of Austin.
"They're very well positioned," Siegel said. "You've got the growing Austin tech scene and then you've got the growing Democratic movement in Texas and they're at the intersection of those."
Siegel benefited from Register2Vote's maiden voyage, which brought 6,833 newly registered voters to the polls in the 10th Congressional District in 2018.
"To me that explains, in part, how I outperformed Democrats in Texas who had three and four times as much money as me," said Seigel, who lost by 13,132 votes and hopes to register 37,000 new voters in 2020.
Joseph Kopser, an Army veteran and tech entrepreneur who ran as a Democrat two years ago in the once-solidly Republican 21st Congressional District, gave Smith free reign in his campaign.
The district, which includes fast growing suburbs south of Austin and north of San Antonio, gained 6,910 new voters through Register2Vote, more than any other district in the state.
"We earned more votes than any Democratic congressional candidate running in the state of Texas so there was definitely something going on that gave me a big boost," said Kopser, who lost to Republican Chip Roy by 9,233 votes, or 2.6 percentage points.
Suburban Test Case
By overlaying Postal Service change of address data over registration data, Smith and Eden were able to track movers, both within Texas and from outside Texas (and now anywhere in the U.S.), creating the ripest targets — people who were already registered but may have failed to update their registrations, making them, perhaps to their surprise, ineligible to vote.
"About 30,000 Democrats a month are moving into Texas," Maxey said, and the places they are moving to are the places that are trending Democratic.
As Texas becomes more competitive, "marginal stuff like that matters," said Texas Tech political scientist Seth McKee. "There's a bunch more contests, especially in Texas now, that are just marginal races and it really does come down to who turns out more."
"It brings the gold standard of registration down to the every man level, to where it's a genuine grassroots affordable tool that almost any campaign can take advantage of," said George Shipley, a veteran Democratic operative from Austin. "Think about a state rep's race where you could add 2,000 votes to the pool."
In March, Smith and Eden created Civitech, a for-profit public benefit corporation, operating separately but side-by-side with Register2Vote, that can do partisan work, providing progressive candidates and activists campaign operating systems.
When state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, stepped down over the summer setting up a special election in November in a diverse suburban Houston district that has been trending blue, Cari Marshall turned to Civitech.
Marshall, an Austin activist and veteran of Beto O'Rourke's Senate campaign, last year launched Flip the Texas House, an independent effort to help Democrats win 17 House seats in 2020 that they lost by fewer than 10 points in 2018.
Her group targeted 5,000 unregistered voters in House District 28 who were seen as most likely to vote Democratic.
Eliz Markowitz, the lone Democrat in the race, finished first by 3,081 votes. There will be a runoff Jan. 28.
Helped by O'Rourke's candidacy, Democrats gained 12 House seats in 2018, and need to pick up nine more to win control of the House. O'Rourke, who won nine of the 17 seats Flip the Texas House is targeting, has embraced Marshall's effort and made turning the Texas House his top priority for 2020.
Marshall's group has sent out 54,540 registration mailers in the 17 districts. Cumulatively, Democrats lost those districts by 59,004 votes.
"We truly believe that we far outnumber them," Marshall said. "There are a ton of Democrats moving into the state or who already live here but haven't registered. Republicans don't have nearly as much low-hanging fruit as we do. We're like, good luck, we don't think you'll find as many people as we will."
For many years, Texas Republicans prided themselves on their attention to precisely this sort of detail and they are not sleeping on it.
"I'll just say we're using the latest technology to reach unregistered voters and follow up and it's been very successful so far," said Steve Munisteri, the former Texas Republican Party chairman, who is now advising the party as well as the reelection campaign of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The party's efforts are being augmented by Engage Texas, a new super PAC that raised nearly $10 million during the first half of 2019 and, according to spokeswoman Lucy Nashed, "will use grassroots, direct mail and digital outreach to identify, register and educate eligible but unregistered Texas voters whose voices are currently unaccounted for."
The last Friday in December, a coalition of progressive non-profit groups launched their own registration counter-offensive.
"We are seeing this huge investment in voter registration," said Charlie Bonner, the communications director of MOVE Texas. "We and our partners at Battleground Texas and the Texas Freedom Network and Jolt just announced the largest voter registration coordinated program in the history of Texas to register a half million people before the 2020 election."
MOVE, which focuses on youth empowerment, has an old-school approach to registration.
"Face-to-face interaction is the No. 1 thing that gets people registered to vote and turns them out," Bonner said.
"We think there are 8 million people in Texas who are either not registered or who are registered at the wrong address and so can't vote," Smith said.
"And so we're diligently trying to find them all," Eden said.
"Ted Cruz won Texas with 18.2% of the vote of the eligible population, Beto got 17. So there's like 65% of people just still out there," Smith said. "We think there are 2.5 million for-sure Democrats out of that and another 2 to 4 million likely Democrats."
"That defies logic. I don't buy that at all," Munisteri said.
"It doesn't look like the universe of unregistered is more than 4 million, and there's some question about that," he said. Munisteri said polling suggests that unregistered Texans, like registered Texans, tend to be more conservative than not. He estimates of that universe of 4 million, about 2 million would tend to be Republicans, a million Democrats, and a million up for grabs.
An Underdog Candidate
There is reason, however, to temper expectations about registration efforts, said Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh, author of the 2015 book, "Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters."
"One thing that political science research has shown pretty clearly is that the main reason people don't vote is not logistical barriers, it's lack of social pressure, feelings of efficacy, or caring," Hersh said. While he had no first-hand knowledge of Smith's efforts, Hersh said that it might help in Texas because of its particular logistical barriers, but it's unlikely a single tool could be decisive to electoral success.
Still, Smith said that in the spring they will have the results of random control trials they conducted in 2019 in Texas and Virginia, and a handful of Democratic candidates who have used his technology say it works.
"It's revolutionary. It's a game changer, for Texas especially." said Julie Oliver an Austin Democrat who was the party nominee against U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, in 2018, and is in a primary to reprise that race in 2020.
Smith met Oliver in April 2018 when she knocked on his door in Mueller while campaigning during the primary runoff.
He introduced her to Register2Vote. She introduced Smith to her husband and campaign manager, Matt Oliver, who now works as part of Smith's team of 25.
She also introduced him to Cody Schank, a campaign volunteer and data scientist who was getting his doctorate in the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Texas, who helped refine MapTheVote, which Oliver was the first candidate to field test.
"What we did was combine the power of the Post Office, and county records, and Google maps," Smith said. "We just did it in a way that was grueling and hard to do that no one else had tried before."
The map enables anyone anywhere in the United States to use their smart phone or laptop to view and manipulate a map of any local geography down to the precinct level populated with green bubbles for every residence inhabited by someone who is likely not registered.
It provides a canvassing script for a door-knocking encounter and you can update the data set with the results of your visit, perhaps including signing them up to get a mailer from Register2Vote, so that your efforts are not being duplicated.
It also allows a candidate like Oliver to raise money from supporters — in her case it's $2 a head — to have applications sent, via Civitech, along with a branded message from her campaign to however many of those residents in a particular geography they'd like.
MapTheVote also offers Oliver a vivid way to identify potentially rich underdeveloped pockets of support in a farflung district — like around Fort Hood — and home in on them, even as she and her supporters can visually watch the map change hues as they make progress in reaching their targets.
"Her campaign was the first to use it in 2018 and she has been using these tools thoroughly to register and expand the electorate in really big ways," Smith said.
Oliver did not come close in 2018. She lost by 8.7 points — 26,638 votes. Register2Vote added 5,457 voters.
Williams had won the three previous general elections by more than 20 points in a largely rural district drawn to easily elect a Republican.
"So you want to win District 25 you really have to add more voters," Smith said.
©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.