Registering to vote in Texas has never been easy, COVID-19 is making it even harder

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In 39 states and the District of Columbia, registering to vote is as easy as clicking a button on a computer. In Texas, voters don’t have that option.

Technically, a newly arrived Texan can start the process of registering to vote online. They must fill out a voter registration application, print it, sign it, and then mail it. The county voter registrar then processes the application. Within 30 days, a voter certificate will be mailed.

This is a process that assumes easy access to the Internet, a printer, and the ability to mail the application. In California, registering to vote online can be done on the Secretary of State’s website. It cheekily notes that registering online will “save a stamp.”

Under Republican leadership, Texas has held dearly to the time-honored tradition of making it as difficult as possible to vote. And many of those hurdles have certainly been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton scored another voting rights anti-victory last week when the Supreme Court upheld the state’s ban on mail-in ballot expansion. Paxton has vigorously argued against mail-in ballots, arguing it could lead to ballot harvesting.

But what’s the purpose of keeping registering to vote so hard? It’s likely demographics play a major role in that decision. In the past decade, the Hispanic population of Texas has increased by more than 2 million.

In 2018, the youth turnout among voters increased tremendously in the state of Texas. The state has one of the fastest-growing youth populations, fueled both by growth in the Hispanic and AAPI communities.

In the past five years, a number of organizations have either entered or increased their presence in the state in order to register as many new voters as possible. That’s no easy task, according to Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. In an interview with The Guardian she said:, “Texas has some of the strictest voter registration laws in the country. In Texas, volunteer deputy registrars can be criminally prosecuted for what most of us would consider administrative errors while they’re registering people.”

In many states, voter registration drives are held on college campuses, state fairs, and any location with heavy foot traffic. In Texas, voter registration drives can only be administered by volunteer deputy registrars. You are required to undergo training, and the term only lasts two years.

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteer deputy registrar trainings have been postponed indefinitely. Any organization that was planning a massive on-the-ground campaign to register voters has been left scrambling.

MOVE Texas had big plans for the 2020 cycle. Since 2013, MOVE Texas has been one of the state’s biggest youth voter registration and civic engagement groups.

With teams in San Antonio, Laredo, Seguin, San Marcos, Austin, Houston, and Dallas, MOVE Texas was poised to fan out across the state on college and community college campuses. According to their Political Director Raven Douglas, they started out the year registering 2000 college students with 45 paid fellows. 

Then came COVID-19. In an interview with the Texas Signal, Douglas acknowledges the health crisis has been a “bump in the road.” MOVE Texas is still working digitally and online. They are also providing packaged envelopes for newly registering voters.

For Douglas, COVID-19 really makes the argument that Texas should be making it easier for new voters to register. After all, there’s the health and safety of the employees at the county clerk’s office to consider.

Being able to register online would be easier and safer for everyone in the state. 

“The technology is there, but as we continue to see there are some leaders who continuously make it harder to vote and making voting inaccessible,” Douglas said.

As the next state legislative session reconvenes early next year, a bill to allow online voter registration will likely be filed. In three previous sessions state Rep. Celia Israel has authored one, and each prior session it failed.

Now that Texas is in a full-blown health crisis, perhaps, the online voter registration bill will get slightly more attention.

Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images 

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