How to fix Texas' outdated voter registration system

Photo by John Harvey

The recent lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project against the Texas Department of Public Safety exposes very real problems Texans face when they try to register to vote or change their voting address while renewing their driver’s license online.

If you renew your driver’s license in person, you can register to vote or update your address. If you renew your license online, the DPS website asks if you want to register to vote. Many click “yes” and believe they are registered. They are not. The ironic reality is that the in-person process is automated — we receive the records electronically from DPS — but the online process requires voter applications be printed out, completed and mailed.

This is one of many weaknesses in our outdated, paper-based state voter registration system. While Texans are able to conduct a wide variety of online transactions that require sensitive personal and financial information, including renewing driver’s licenses and paying property taxes, we are among a dwindling minority of states that prohibit their citizens from being able to register to vote online.

Most Texans, especially digital natives, find it hard to believe that a state a big as Texas does not offer online voter registration.

Gov. Greg Abbott stated in a recent Tribune article: “We don’t want to open the system up to methodologies or ways of voting that would promote or allow voter fraud.”

Of course we don’t, but our current paper-based system requires processing poorly written, barely legible and incomplete applications with personal information received and submitted by third-party volunteers, which makes your information far more vulnerable to mishandling, errors and fraud than a secure electronic system.

On the Feb. 1 voter registration deadline, my office received about 10,000 paper applications that required 500 staff hours to decipher, enter, scan and file. In a presidential year, my office alone could save $100,000 if our citizens were allowed to register to vote online.

Arizona, the first state to put voter registration online, reduced its costs from 83 cents per application to about 3 cents each. Seventy percent of Arizonians currently register online.

Online voter registration requires applicants to submit all the information asked for on the paper application plus a driver’s license audit number. It is an added level of security because the audit number — which is a unique identifier similar to a credit card security code — must match the driver’s license database. Numbers that don’t match and/or incomplete applications are rejected.

And when it’s online, no third-party volunteer is given access to your information.

Online voter registration will offer convenience to every Texan with a driver’s license or personal ID and one special group: Military personnel, whether in the midst of combat or stationed anywhere in the world.

Here are four important points you should remember:

  1. The 31 states — large and small, red and blue — that allow online voter registration have not reported even one instance of hacking or fraud.
  2. Online voter registration in Texas would use the same security protocols that are currently being used for all state government online services, including financial transactions.
  3. DPS already forwards voter registration applications electronically when citizens make a voter registration or change of address request in person at a DPS office.
  4. Texas already allows you to change your voter registration address online, providing you moved within the same county.

In the last legislative session, state Rep. Celia Israel championed online voter registration with a bill that was co-sponsored by a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives. Despite the fact officials from DPS, the Secretary of State, and the Department of Information Resources testified that online voter registration would be secure and reliable, the legislation was left pending in committee.

The Texas Civil Rights Project lawsuit illustrates that our voter registration system is fraught with inefficiency, vulnerability and double standards. Most states have already moved to online voter registration systems that are proven to be far more secure, cost-effective, accurate and accessible than our state’s paper-based system.

Our Legislature can address the Texas Civil Rights Project lawsuit, save taxpayer dollars and make voter registration more accessible, accurate and secure by approving online voter registration for Texans, a tested system currently in use by many other states.

Bruce Elfant

Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar