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We Found a Way to Increase Voter Turnout in Texas, but Texas Isn’t Interested

Contradicting its own election code, Texas rejects thousands of voter registration forms mere days before the deadline

Debra Cleaver
Oct 4, 2018 · 4 min read
Photo: Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Getty Images

On August 30, Vote.org rolled out the biggest upgrade to our voter registration tool since 2016. Internally we refer to it as “esign” because it involves capturing electronic signatures and applying them to voter forms. Externally, we’ve effectively created “online” voter registration for citizens who can’t register to vote online — either because they live in a state that doesn’t have online voter registration, or because they don’t have a driver’s license.

This is nerdy, so bear with me:

  • We realized certain states allow voters to submit their registrations by fax or email, which means that these states accept electronic signatures.
  • We built a new feature on top of our existing voter registration tool that lets voters “sign” their forms by taking a picture of their signature.
  • We then affix their signature to their voter registration form and allow them to submit their signed form via fax using the Vote.org fax API.
  • For the voter, the process is entirely “online” in that they never need to print and mail a form.
  • For the Local Election Office, nothing changes. They still receive a signed paper voter registration form, only this one is neatly typed and filled out properly.

Tools like this bring us one step closer to our vision of an electorate that is as diverse as the population at large. We launched this feature in Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, Kansas, and South Carolina. So far the tool has been used thousands of time without issue.

In late September we added support for Texas. Under Texas Election Code, citizens can register to vote via fax as long as they submit a copy of their voter registration form via mail within four business days. We rolled out this upgrade in four counties (Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, and Travis). Before turning on the upgrade, our General Counsel and our COO met with each of the county clerks in person and let them know to expect a large number of faxed forms with hard copies following within four business days. The tool has been used 2,400 times since launch.

On Tuesday, Rolando Pablos, the Texas Secretary of State, announced that they planned to reject all 2,400 lawfully submitted voter registration forms — only one week before the state’s October 9th voter registration deadline.

Secretary Pablos was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in 2016 and oversees Texas elections. We trust that he has read and is familiar with Texas Election Code. We were quite surprised when he called Vote.org — and the county election officials — and stated that the 2,400 forms must be rejected because they did not include an “original” signature.

Sadly, this is part of a long history of voter suppression in Texas.

This directly contradicts the plain language found in Texas’ Election Code, which expressly permits Texans to register by fax with a copy by mail. The election code says “copy,” not “original.” Copy and original are common words, with commonly understood meanings. They are not synonymous. We have asked the Secretary of State’s office to point to the section of Texas Election Code that states that only an original signature is acceptable. They are unable to do so because this language does not exist.

The position taken by Pablos’ office is patently absurd. The Texas Election Code is written in plain language, and is not subject to interpretation. Any reasonable voter would interpret “you can fax in your form and mail a copy” to mean that you can do precisely that, and Pablos’ office lacks the authority to say that where the law says one thing, it means the opposite.

Vote.org immediately disabled our esign feature in Texas and took steps to ensure that the 2,400 affected citizens will be registered to vote by the October 9th deadline.

  1. We mailed paper voter registration forms to all 2,400 citizens in partnership with Register2Vote.org
  2. We’ve emailed all 2,400 voters to let them know that paper forms are on the way, and that they can also print and mail their own forms if they don’t want to wait.
  3. Finally, we have sent text message to the voters as well.

Vote.org exists solely to increase turnout. The Texas Secretary of State does not appear to share this goal. He is actively choosing to reject thousands of lawfully submitted forms only days before the deadline, in a state with several highly competitive elections.

Sadly, this is part of a long history of voter suppression in Texas. Yesterday the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News covered this incident and called attention to the state’s history of low voter turnout, low registration rates, antiquated registration processes, and inconsistent administration of voting rules.

Vote.org strongly disagrees with the Secretary of State and is exploring all avenues of recourse. We suggest that the Secretary of State implement Online Voter Registration, a common sense solution to increase voter registration rates while reducing costs. There are no downsides to online voter registration — unless, of course, your goal is to suppress voter turnout. We hope that this isn’t the case, and look forward to Texas joining the 38 other states that have taken steps to secure and modernize their voter registration solutions. In the meantime, we will do everything in our power to increase voter turnout in Texas — including pursuing legal action, should it come to that.

Texans deserve better than what happened yesterday. Hopefully the next crop of elected and appointed officials agree.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Debra Cleaver

Written by

Founder Vote.org. Generally found hanging out at the intersection of technology and democracy. Lover of cats, voting, and videos of cats voting.

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