Tech savvy Texas should have online voter registration
Over the years Gov. Greg Abbott has bragged that Texas is “the new tech mecca,” a land of innovators, flourishing startups and tech giants that power an economy of the future. Yet one of the state’s own systems, one central to our right of self-governance, remains hopelessly analog.
Texas is one of about 10 states without an online voter registration system, a baffling anachronism that was back in the headlines and the federal courts this week. As the Statesman’s Chuck Lindell reported, Texans can easily renew their driver’s licenses online, but if they want to register to vote or update their registration from one county to another, they must print out a paper form and mail it to their county registrar.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Thursday those extra steps put Texas in violation of the 1993 “motor voter” law, which was intended to make voter registration easier. Lawyers for the Texas Civil Rights Project, which filed the lawsuit, have estimated those difficulties cost more than 735 Texans the right to vote in 2018.
The state’s track record on this issue has been to fight the litigation and shun the actual solution of developing an online voter registration system. That needs to stop. It’s foolish for Texas to cling to a paper system that’s bound to be less accurate, less accessible to applicants and more expensive to administer than an online one.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, has pushed bills in the last three sessions, with dozens of co-sponsors, to launch an online voter registration system, but each time the effort has died in committee. “It’s embarrassing that so many states have it and Texas doesn’t,” she lamented in 2018.
It’s not just a matter of convenience for voters, although that is important. The paper-based system is costly and labor-intensive for registrar’s offices: Staffers must examine the forms by hand, decipher an applicant’s handwriting and enter the information into their computer system.
On the last day to register before the November 2018 election, the Travis County Tax Office received about 40,000 voter registration applications, Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant told us. An army of employees and temps worked long hours and through the weekend to process those applications, finishing the last batch on the third day of early voting.
Thinking back to that mountain of paperwork, Elfant asks: “What business would operate like this?”
Much of that burden would be lifted if applicants entered the information themselves online. Registrars would deal with fewer incomplete paper applications that must be sent back, as an online system could require certain fields to be filled out before the form can go through.
Those efficiencies would translate into real savings for local government offices: A 2010 study found that Arizona, the first state to provide online voter registration, saw administrative costs drop from 83 cents per paper registration to 3 cents per online registration.
It would also eliminate the chance for mistakes as staffers enter the information from paper forms. Another Arizona study found voter registrations from paper forms were up to five times more likely to have errors than registrations filed online.
If there’s a silver lining to Texas dragging its feet on online voter registration, it’s the fact that other states have done the hard work to develop secure systems that Texas could replicate. To verify the voter’s identity, an online application could require a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a person’s Social Security number — data that could be easily checked against other state records. Other security features are available to guard against hackers.
Even with an online voter registration system, paper applications would remain available. But Elfant estimates about half of those registering to vote in Travis County would do so online, which would translate into significant savings.
Many of us already handle our banking and pay our bills online. When it’s time to pay our property tax bills, or renew our driver’s licenses, or request a copy of a birth certificate, Texas has online systems that are up to the task. Surely a “new tech mecca” can figure out how to do the same thing with voter registration.