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Texas Voting Rights

Texas appeals after a judge orders the state to implement online voter registration for drivers

Activists hope the case will open the door to broader online voter registration in the future.

Vote sign outside of Austin City Hall, July 31, 2012.

The legal fight over whether Texas is disenfranchising thousands of voters by violating a federal voter registration law is on its way to federal appeals court.

Just after a federal judge gave Texas less than two months to implement a limited version of online voter registration, the state on Monday formally notified U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia that it was appealing his finding that Texas was violating the law — also known as the “Motor Voter Act” — by failing to allow drivers to register to vote when they renew their driver’s licenses online.

Pointing to registration deadlines for the November election, Garcia created a 45-day deadline for the state to create the online system for drivers in order to comply with the federal law that requires states to allow people to register to vote while getting their drivers licenses.

Garcia’s orders were made public Monday. They followed the state’s reluctance to revise its current system, which allows people to register in person at Department of Public Safety offices but not when they renew their licenses online.

Texans updating their licenses on the DPS website are instead directed to a registration form on the secretary of state’s website that they must print out and send to their county registrar.

Asked to propose a fix by last Thursday, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the state in court, offered no specific solution of its own and instead disputed the judge’s ruling.

Garcia then ordered the state to correct course after violating federal law “for several years” and submit within two weeks a proposal for a public education plan to inform drivers of the option to register online. That will likely be delayed now that the state has confirmed it will look to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for relief in the case.

The state’s current system was first challenged in 2016 by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of several Texas voters who, the group argued, were among the thousands of voters disenfranchised by Texas’ disparate treatment for those renewing their licenses online.

"[Twenty-five] years ago, Congress passed the NVRA to get more people registered to vote; it's long past time for the State to stop wasting time and resources defending its unlawful violation of this pivotal voting rights law," Beth Stevens, voting rights director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement.

The AG’s office tried to defend the state’s practice of directing drivers to the secretary of state’s website. But Garcia ruled that practice “is not enough” and violates the Motor Voter Act and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.

The state had also argued that there are technological difficulties associated with online voter registration even in this narrow form, particularly because state law requires a signature when an individual registers to vote. But Garcia also dismissed that argument because the state already keeps an electronic signature on file.

The state’s “excuse for noncompliance is not supported by the facts or the law,” Garcia said in his ruling.

If Garcia’s ruling withstands appeals, the case could result in Texas introducing the first form of online voter registration in the state. Advocates are hopeful it might lead lawmakers to adopt a full-blown system that’s not limited to use by those renewing their driver’s licenses.

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