The debate about voting in Texas over the past several years has focused on the controversial voter ID law that passed in 2011 and finally took effect over the summer. It was a necessary step to prevent voter fraud, supporters said, while opponents countered that it erected illegal hurdles to voting, particularly for poor and minority populations.
The folks at the Texas Civil Rights Project are seeking to broaden the conversation, which has become unproductive, asking not just why Texas seems bent on disenfranchising a significant put relatively small percentage of the population through the ID law but why it doesn't do a better job of encouraging voter registration across the board.
Registering to vote, it should be said, isn't all that hard. Just check a box when you renew your driver's license or else print a form and mail it to the county clerk. But the process can be confusing (those who renew their licenses online, for example, can check the voter registration box, but this this won't actually register them to vote) and ensuring that registration happens tends to be incumbent on the voter.
TCRP argues that the state has a responsibility to more actively promote voter registration -- not just a vague moral responsibility but a well-defined legal one.
One of the big problem spots, the group says, is public schools. Under Texas law, high schools are required to distribute voter registration cards to students at least twice per year. Some districts -- somewhere between one- and two-fifths, according to TCRP's figures -- comply with that rule, but most do not.
There are also multiple state agencies, like the Department of Aging and Disability Services and the Department of State Health Services, that are supposed to promote voter registration to their clients but do not.
TCRP cites other problems, too, like recent cases in Harris County of would-be registrants who were improperly kept off the voter rolls because they didn't include a driver's license or Social Security number or else weren't added because their application sat in the county clerk's office. The system for training and appointing deputy voter registrars varies widely from county to county, with some voting officials in rural areas unaware of the practice. When the state does do outreach, materials are mostly printed in English and Spanish and not in Chinese, Urdu or other languages potential voters might speak.
All of this ties into Texas' well-documented history of voter exclusion, TCRP argues, referencing KKK intimidation, poll taxes, all-white primaries and race-based gerrymandering, among other sins.
The nonprofit has a host of suggestion for encouraging voter participation. All state agencies charged with voter registration should adopt the Texas Department of Public Safety's system, which automatically adds an applicant's name to their county voter rolls. The TEA should make sure schools are actually handing out voter registration cards. Outreach materials need to be printed in other common languages.
The biggest piece, however, is that the state needs the authority to punish entities that stray from their requirements under the state's election laws. Without that, there will be little incentive to follow the rules.
Judging by TCRP's assessment of Keith Ingram, elections director for the Texas Secretary of State, there might not be a lot of political will.
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"While aware of the challenges Texas faces in ensuring that each eligible citizen is registered to vote because of gaps in policy and virtually zero enforcement mechanisms, Mr. Ingram coolly shifted the responsibility of advocating for policy reform onto citizens," the report says. "He explained that it is up to us as voters to sway our Legislature regarding such issues as policy reform."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.