Legal Battles

Texas Wins Right to Stay in Dark Ages of Voter Registration on a Technicality

Voting rights groups in Texas have pushed for easier voter registration. Texas has pushed back.
Voting rights groups in Texas have pushed for easier voter registration. Texas has pushed back. iStock
For a brief moment in 2018, it looked like Texas might be dragged out of the dark ages and forced to fix one of its residents' longest-standing frustrations. A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit squashed that dream Wednesday, at least for the time being.

According to a three-judge panel, the three Texas residents who sued the state, arguing that it violated federal law by not allowing those renewing their driver's license online to register to vote at the same time, and won a lower-court decision last year, actually don't have standing to challenge the law.

The court's argument, essentially, is that while the plaintiffs suffered harm at the hands of the state when they were unable to register to vote when they renewed their licenses ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, they were able to register to vote before the 2016 election. Because Texas' potential noncompliance with the federal government's "motor voter" law, which requires states to allow voter registration by whatever methods they allow driver's license renewal, no longer threatens the plaintiffs, they can't sue the state over the law, according to the court.

"Because Plaintiffs became registered prior to bringing this lawsuit, the fact that Plaintiffs were registered impacts whether they have standing to sue, not whether their claims are moot," the court said.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, the organization that helped the plaintiffs bring the lawsuit, remained confident in its argument against the law.

"The state of Texas has consciously adopted and defended a practice that disenfranchises tens of thousands of voters each year and burdens millions." — Mimi Marziani

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“While we are disappointed in this technical decision, our central argument remains. The state of Texas has consciously adopted and defended a practice that disenfranchises tens of thousands of voters each year and burdens millions," said Mimi Marziani, the group's president. "The state can change its practices at any moment, at almost no cost, to advance our democracy rather than shirk its duties under law."

In a concurring opinion, Circuit Judge James Ho, an appointee of President Donald Trump, criticized the state.

“Plaintiffs have indeed endured an injury ... they were unable to exercise their right to vote in past election cycles. And it is a right they will never be able to recover ... we can hope it is a deprivation they will not experience again ... ," Ho said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has argued against allowing Texans to register to vote online because he believes it will make it easier to commit election fraud.

“Congress, in the text of the NVRA, recognized that requiring a voter to sign a registration application is an important means of upholding election integrity,” Paxton said after his office argued the case at the Fifth Circuit. “Texas’ duly elected policy-makers agreed, and federal judges have no right to alter that decision because they disagree with it."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young