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Will New Voter Registrar Rules Decrease Turnout?

A new law imposing citizenship restrictions on deputy and volunteer voter registrars has voting rights groups worried that fewer Texans — in particular, fewer minorities — will cast a ballot next year.

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A new law imposing citizenship restrictions on deputy and volunteer voter registrars has voting rights groups worried that fewer Texans — in particular, fewer minorities — will cast a ballot next year.

House Bill 2194, by state Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, amended the Texas Election Code to ensure that a registrar meet the requirements of a registered voter. Before the change, a registrar simply had to be deputized. That's still the case, but now he or she must also be a U.S. citizen.

The bill, which passed out of the Texas House 134 to 7 and out of the Texas Senate 31 to 0, also makes it a class A misdemeanor to compensate registrars based on how many people they registered, or to present a registrar with a quota to reach as a condition of payment or employment.

A comprehensive study of new voting laws released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law says that in 2008, about 26,000 voters were registered in Texas through drives that “have now been made extremely difficult or impossible under new laws.” According to the study, the citizenship requirement, coupled with HB 1570, by state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, will deter potential registrars from participating in such  drives.

Murphy's bill lays out new training requirements for deputy registrars, which may include a test at the end of their training. The intent is to make certain that a deputy registrar "can perform all the duties required and to increase efficiency in county clerks' offices by reducing some of the time and paperwork involved in processing voter registration applications," according to the bill analysis. But the Brennan Center says the laws, taken together, will reduce the registration rate, partly because state governments do not make an aggressive effort to register voters. They “instead rely on individual voters to ensure that they are registered,” the study says.

“The laws are another step in making it harder to register and harder to vote overall in the state of Texas,” says Lee Rowland, who serves as counsel to the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Division. “And it’s coming at a time when registration rates are lower than they have been in the past.”

Rowland argues the new citizenship requirement will disproportionately affect blacks and Hispanics, who are more likely than whites to register through registration drives. In 2004, about 13 percent of new black and Hispanic voters were registered through drives, versus about 8 percent of non-Hispanic whites, according to U.S. Census data cited in the report. In 2008, 5.4 percent of new white voters were registered through private drives compared with 11 percent of new black voters and 9.6 percent of new Hispanic voters.

Those who favor the measure say it’s a step toward stamping out fraud and insist it’s a simple requirement.

“I think it’s important that people understand what the requirements to register to vote are, and that they be qualified to register to vote, to be able to register voters,” says B.R. "Skipper" Wallace, the state legislative chairman for the Republican County Chairmen’s Association. “I think that there were a considerable amount of problems with several groups during the last election cycle of registering voters that either didn’t understand what the requirements were or were trying to do it fraudulently. I think this would circumvent some of those problems.”

But advocacy groups continue to reject the idea that there is an inherent problem with non-citizens voting illegally or illegally registering voters. Lydia Camarillo, the vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, says illegal immigrants would not risk the legal repercussions of lying on a voter registration application.

“Latinos who are not documented are not registering to vote,” she says. “They get that it’s a penalty of perjury. They are already underground and don’t want to surface, so any of the laws that are trying to suggest that voters who are not citizens are casting a vote are wrong.”

Camarillo says the new requirements for registrars merely create a disincentive to serve.

“When you go get deputized in your county, you are given the instructions on what the laws are and how to complete the forms and all that," she says. "Now there's going to be an added curriculum. It’s just more burdensome. It cuts the volunteer pool.”

Editor’s note: The story has been modified from its original version. The Texas Secretary of State’s office originally told the Tribune HB 2194 had been granted preclearance by the Department of Justice. It has not, however. The department said it made “no determination” on HB 2194 last month.

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