I’m not saying I could hear the anguished cries of Bruce Elfant, assessor and tax collector, from across town. But I knew he would be pissed about this one.
It’s true. Like about 1,500 people per day moving to Texas, and as we head into a big election year where the governor and the other races will be decided, the secretary of state’s office is carefully rationing its distribution of voter registration forms because… there’s a shortage of paper.
“When I saw the title, I said, ‘I know how we could cut the paper,'” Elfant told me. As Travis County’s Registrar of Votes, Elfant has argued for years that Texas should adopt an online voter registration system — something that 40 other states, red and blue, have been using safely for years. (Two other states are currently developing such systems.)
“The idea that we still have a paper-based (voter registration) system is just nonsense,” Elfant continued.
And then he went to get the jugular. “Oklahoma is before us, for God’s sake. We know we don’t want to be behind Oklahoma on anything.
Unlike Elfant, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about the Texas voter registration system, paper or otherwise. But it felt like a good time to discuss how Texas’ stubborn refusal to embrace online voter registration — an innovation that would clearly make voting easier — leaves our state with less precise electoral rolls to one higher cost to taxpayers.
Cut out the middleman
Currently, when you register to vote, you fill out a paper form, including your name, date of birth and driver’s license number. This paper form is sent to the county registrar — in Travis County, this is Elfant’s office — where a worker enters the information into a computer system.
From there, the process is completely digital. The information is submitted electronically to the office of the Texas Secretary of State, which verifies the applicant’s information against other databases. The state then sends Elfant’s office a list of verified candidates who should be added to the voter rolls.
Online voter registration would simply cut out the middleman, that data entry person at Elfant’s office. People would enter their information into a secure website. The Secretary of State’s office would continue to receive information electronically and determine voter eligibility as it currently does.
Studies have shown significant savings in states that offered online voter registration, primarily by reducing the need for paper forms, postage, and data entry personnel (although paper forms are still available to those who need them). Arizona has seen its management fees drop from 83 cents per paper entry to 3 cents per online entry. Multiply that in a state like Texas, where hundreds of thousands of new voters register each year, and the savings would be substantial.
Elfant also points out that such a system would improve the accuracy of voter lists. Have you ever tried to decipher someone else’s terrible handwriting? The data entry people in the Elfant office face this problem on a daily basis. If they misread someone’s form and typed something wrong, the application will be rejected.
Or if the application is simply too difficult to read or missing key information, it will be rejected.
Or if the application is not postmarked by the 30-day deadline before the next election, that person will not be eligible to vote in that election. During presidential election years, Elfant said, his office typically receives about 1,000 voter registration applications that are not postmarked by the deadline, even though he suspects they were sent by the post on time.
“We have thousands of people being denied their right to vote because of our paper-based system – far more than the 43 people the attorney general’s office has voter fraud cases for it,” Elfant said. “I wish our legislature cared so much about these people.”
An easy call anywhere but here
Online voter registration has not been controversial, at least outside of Texas.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by prominent Republican and Democratic election lawyers, I highly recommend it in 2014.
Republican states have it. Democrats too. Ten years ago, the National Conference of State Legislative Assemblies declared“Online voter registration is a non-partisan trend with a capital ‘T’.”
Not so much in Texas, though. Instead of spending a few hundred thousand dollars to launch online voter registration, Texas has spent years and untold resources battling lawsuits over it.
In 2020, courts finally forced Texas to provide online voter registration to people renewing their driver’s license, as part of enforcing federal automobile voter law. Since, about 1.5 million Texans registered to vote this way.
But the state still refuses to expand online voter registration beyond driver’s license renewals. In recent sessions, lawmakers haven’t even considered such bills, including legislation by Austin State Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat.
In a committee hearing in 2015, objections centered on hacking fears, ignoring the plethora of services Texas already provides securely online. A few naysayers have dreamed up “Mission Impossible” impersonation plots.
Then a reviewer said the quiet part out loud.
“What’s at stake here for you three young Republican state representatives?” Harris County Republican Party Leader Alan Vera asked GOP members of the House Elections Committee in 2015, “The State of Colorado, your counterparts, adopted online voter registration in 2010. Colorado is a red state. How could it hurt? Four years later, they are out of work and Colorado is no longer a red state. That’s what it’s about.
Studies have found online voter registration does not help one party over another. But, unfortunately, when it comes to voting politics in Texas, we’re past the point where facts matter.
yes we have forms for this
This month’s dust on paper voter registration forms is due to the fine print. Last session, lawmakers increased the penalty for illegal voter registration from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor. The state must print new voter registration forms reflecting this — but he struggles to get enough forms from his supplier.
After some backlash, the secretary of state’s office said voter applications on the old forms could still be submitted. The agency also noted that people can print their own app from the website of the secretary of statethen send it by mail.
Elfant told me he didn’t worry about running out of forms. Travis County prints its voter registration applications internally. Its staff are still distributing the old forms, with updated penalty information.
What irritates Elfant — and should frustrate anyone who cares about good government — is that Texas still clings to a paper-based voter registration system that is expensive, cumbersome, and out of step with the expectations of Texans. Nearly two-thirds of Texans said they support online voter registration, according to a 2020 survey by the Texas Politics Project.
“We know what the right thing to do is,” Elfant told me. “One day we will get there and wonder why it took so long.”
Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. his column, ATX in context, contains his opinions. Share yours via email at [email protected] or via Twitter at @bgrumet.