Harris County Officials Skeptical of Online Voter Sign-Up

A House panel late Monday learned some Harris County officials are not too keen on online voter registration. Lawmakers have filed two bills that would bring the practice to Texas.

A House panel got a taste late Monday of the deep skepticism toward bringing online voter registration to Texas, skepticism coming from at least one population-rich part of the state.

It was mostly shared by a handful of Harris County officials who expressed concerns the practice could compromise voter privacy and lead to fraud at the ballot box. Some members of the House Elections Committee took note of the common thread, and Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, ended its meeting by cautioning her colleagues against letting the "negative comments of one county in the state of Texas rule the evening." 

The panel nonetheless heard praise for two pieces of legislation, House Bill 76 and House Bill 953, both with the same purpose: adding Texas to the list of 20 states that already let their citizens sign up to vote online. The committee left both bills pending late Monday. 

Israel touted her HB 76 as a sign of the bipartisan support the idea enjoys under the dome, pointing out it has several dozen co-authors from both parties. Rep. Carol Alvarado, the Houston Democrat sponsoring HB 953, pitched it as a way of curbing the government waste that comes with paper registration, which is costlier and more labor-intensive than the online alternative. 

"This bill is about efficient government. It's about cutting wasteful spending," said Alvarado, who has estimated Texas could save more than $11 million by ditching paper registration.

Alvarado had some back-up from several speakers including Samuel Derheimer of the Pew Charitable Trusts. He cited recent polling from the organization that showed more than 60 percent of Texans support online voter registration, and a third think the state already has it.

Among those from Harris County opposing the bills were Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, Ed Johnson of the County Clerk's Office and Alan Vera, chairman of the Ballot Security Committee of the Harris County GOP. 

"Our current system works, and it works well," said Sullivan, who like the two other speakers from Harris County expressed unease with the security of the state software that would handle registration.

Vera added that online sign-up could make it easier for voters to be impersonated at the polls, saying the "main fuel for voter fraud is registered voters who don't show up to vote."

The skeptics of HB 76 and HB 953 found somewhat of a sympathetic figure in Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy. He repeatedly questioned a witness from the state Department of Information Resources about how secure its services are, bringing up a few recent breaches involving state data. 

Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, suggested more than once that critics of the proposal were grasping at straws, overlooking the fact there will always be some risk no matter what one does online.

"It's like the parade of horribles," he said. "You could always come up with some reason not to do something."