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Government is not a business and doesn’t run like one. That “run government like a business” motto you hear from political candidates comes from the “tastes great, less filling” school of advertising.
The slogan hides fundamental differences between government and business. One serves everyone, the other serves only customers. One doesn’t have to make a profit to keep running. Business owners can sell out and leave; taxpayers don’t get that option. That’s just the beginning of a list that’s taller than you are.
That doesn’t mean government can’t steal ideas from business, but it’s rarer than you might expect.
Texas is in the first weeks of the 2022 election cycle. Voters have less than two weeks to register to vote in the party primaries. Early voting begins on Feb. 14, and March 1 is election day.
In a great example of terrible timing, the Texas secretary of state’s office has a shortage of voter registration cards, a predicament the agency is blaming on kinks in the supply chain for paper. According to KUT News, which first reported the problem, the state won’t give civic groups more than 2,000 of those forms each, limiting the ability of those organizations to run voter drives in advance of the primaries.
Paper is expensive and hard to get, compared with normal times, and the state’s election office can’t meet demand for the forms that allow people to sign up to vote.
The easiest solution would be to ditch the paper and let people register to vote online. Business would jump at something like that, eliminating both the supply chain’s hiccups and the cost of paper, printing and postage. But in Texas, online voter registration isn’t legal.
There is a weird hybrid option. You can go online and fill out a voter registration application. But instead of hitting a button to complete the application and moving on to another chore, you have to print out the application you have filled out, sign it and put it in the mail.
Your paper, your stamp.
One might argue that this is not burdensome, that online registration without the printing and the stamp still requires people to have computers and online access.
Business people would work to get rid of any friction in the process, to cut out extra steps that might hinder a customer on the way to a sale, or a vote. It’s easier to order lawn chairs online than it is to register to vote in Texas.
The tech is there and in most parts of the U.S., so is the desire to make it easy. In 42 states and the District of Columbia, voters can register online, according to the National Association of State Legislatures. Same-day registration is legal in 20 states and Washington, D.C., allowing citizens to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballots. That’s something business might do: Cut out the extra deadline and any excuse the voter might have to skip an election.
Nobody will confess to having a different goal, but Texas still has little obstacles built into the election system that lawmakers have spent so much of their time tinkering with.
During the 2020 elections, local officials looked for ways to make voting less risky for Texans coping with COVID-19. Some expanded curbside voting. Harris County was bolder, opening polls that people could visit 24/7 and allowing drive-thru voting. They sent absentee ballot applications to everyone who was registered to vote instead of waiting for a request from each voter who wanted to do that.
They made it easier to vote. The Republican lawmakers elected in 2020 came to Austin with reform on their minds, inspired — like their counterparts elsewhere — by false claims of election tampering by a former president unwilling to accept his reelection defeat. It put those Republican officeholders in the odd position of complaining about a Texas election where their party did particularly well.
They changed the law anyway, barring most of the Harris County pandemic responses and tightening voting and election laws in dozens of other large and small ways.
That is probably not how business people would run elections, but businesses are customer-oriented. This is the Texas government.
Disclosure: KUT News and the Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.