TexplainerMore in this series
Editor’s note: Today’s Texplainer was inspired by a question received through ProPublica’s Electionland project, a collaboration of newsrooms around the country tracking voting problems.
Hey, Texplainer: I registered to vote ahead of the registration deadline, but I’m still not showing up on the voter rolls. What’s going on?
The last-minute efforts to register people to vote by the 30-day deadline ahead of each election typically result in what local election officials have previously described as a paper tsunami.
Whether Texans drop their registration cards into a mailbox or sign up through a volunteer voter registrar, thousands of voter registration cards pour into local elections offices where county workers rush to process them in the short window between the registration deadline and the day Texans begin heading to the polls.
Because Texas does not allow for online voter registration, election officials verifying voter registration cards have to manually enter each new voter’s information into their local voter database — a time-consuming process that often leads to backlogs in the weeks before elections.
Election workers are left to decipher people’s handwriting, which can often be illegible, county workers say. And in some cases, prospective voters leave blanks in their applications, forcing officials to mail out individual notices about incomplete registrations so they can be resolved. When an application is complete, counties must then send the voter file to the secretary of state’s office, which then verifies and adds the voter to its statewide database.
In practice, this means thousands of voters might not be added to the rolls until just before polls open.
With early voting starting on Monday, election officials in some counties are still processing voter cards amid a surge of registrations.
“It’s like when they say it rains, it pours,” said Gretchen Nagy, director of voter registration for Travis County, which as of Tuesday morning was facing a backlog of almost 20,000 voter registration cards. “It has been unbelievable what we have been receiving.”
The county hired temporary workers to help with the spike in registration that is typical ahead of the state’s deadline, and they were mostly caught up just before that Oct. 9 registration cut-off. But then came the “floodwaters,” Nagy said.
They received three bins of applications on the last day to register. Those were followed by another three the next day. The county ended up receiving between 6,000 to 9,000 applications on each of the days that immediately followed the registration deadline. They received another box of applications from the secretary of state’s office just yesterday. It measures about 18 inches by 18 inches, Nagy said.
In light of that delivery, it’s possible some Travis County residents won’t make it onto the rolls until this weekend, now that the county has pushed back its Friday deadline to complete registrations, Nagy said.
The county is grappling with a spike in late registrations that has outpaced previous elections. Though voter participation drops significantly during non-presidential election years, more Travis County residents registered to vote in September 2018 than in September 2016 ahead of the presidential election. In light of that surge, Travis County officials originally assumed residents were registering to vote earlier in the process so October might be slower. Now, they’re on track to also outpace registrations during October 2016, Nagy said.
The county boasts the state’s highest levels of registration among eligible voters — it just hit a 93 percent registration rate.
The sprint to complete voter registration ahead of early voting is not unique to Travis. Down the road in Bexar County, election officials are also racing against the clock to work through their backlog.
The county extended hours over the weekend and the last two days just before the registration deadline so it saw a “great turnout of people registering last week,” said Bexar County elections administrator Jacquelyn Callanen.
Bexar County officials, including the 15 temporary workers they hired for election season, have been processing 4,000 to 5,000 registration cards a day, though more than half of them are change of address requests and not new registrations, Callanen said.
The county had so many cards left to process as of Monday evening that Callanen could only quantify them as “trays and trays” of cards.
The mad dash of completing these tasks manually will inevitably lead to typos or unintentional errors in a voter’s information, though they can likely be corrected once a voter shows up at the polls, officials say. But for county officials like Nagy and Callanen, it’s an issue that could be avoided if the state embraced online voter registration.
Thirty-seven states already offer online voter registration; neighboring Oklahoma, which is in the process of implementing online registration, will be the 38th. But similar proposals have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature.
Bottom line: Be patient. Your voter registration card may be stuck in a backlog of registration applications that will soon be processed. But it’s best to remain vigilant and check with your local voter registrar’s office if you’re not added to the voter rolls by the time polls open.
The Texas Tribune is participating in ProPublica’s Electionland project, a collaboration of newsrooms around the country tracking voting problems This story is part of that project. You can help us by signing up now. Text VOTE to 81380. You can also WhatsApp at us at +1 850 909-8683 or reach us through Facebook Messenger here: http://m.me/electionland