As the deadline to register to vote ahead of this November’s mayoral election nears, a large swath of Houstonians are about to learn an unfortunate truth about the state of Texas: We’re one of fewer than 10 states in the nation that does not allow online voter registration for most people.
Which means signing up to perform your civic duty isn’t a quick, thumb-flicking process. It’s going to take time. And time is running out – the cutoff for voter registration for the November election is Tuesday, Oct. 10.
“Particularly for younger voters, online voter registration meets their expectations of what a modern system should look like,” says Andrew Hendrickson, government relations coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “I’ve heard from many a deputy registrar who say a lot of people will pass them by and say, ‘Oh no, I can just do it online.’”
But you can’t.
Texas is one of just four states that requires voters to register ahead of time but doesn’t provide an online option for most voters – along with Arkansas, Mississippi and South Dakota, Hendrickson says. And this archaic system creates a needless barrier that blocks easy access to one of our nation’s most fundamental rights.
A not-so-instantaneous process
This is not meant to be a doom-and-gloom piece. If you are not registered to vote, you do have time, and you do have options. You just have to budget some time to complete a not-so-instantaneous process.
“If someone wants to register to vote, or they need to update their registration, they have a number of options,” says Alicia Pierce, a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State. And while the process can’t be completed wholly online, Pierce says the best place to start is at the voter registration portal on votetexas.gov. There, you can check whether you’re registered, and begin a new registration if you need to.
“If it’s a new registration, they can print out the form at votetexas.gov that they will need to print out and mail to the registrar,” Pierce says. “They can also request a form to be sent to them to fill out and mail in, or they can contact their local registrar for more information.”
The voter registration form is relatively easy to fill out and sign. There’s no requirement for a notary to sign off on your signature.
Which is infuriating, honestly.
For years, Texas lawmakers have sought to introduce legislation that would enable all voters across the state to register online, as has become standard across the country. But they have been unable to overcome pushback from opponents who argue such a move would make the state susceptible to voter fraud.
But the mail-in form takes the same shape as online registration would. And, without the need for a notary, there are no additional checks that make the mail-in form more fraud-proof than an online form. If anything, Hendrickson notes, the introduction of handwriting, which often can be illegible, leaves room for more errors than the online option.
And voters are required to show one of seven forms of photo identification at the polls, a safeguard against fraud that currently works rather well to double-check mail-in voter registrations, given the state’s track record for safe elections.
So seriously, what gives?
“The security issue is a guise for keeping the electorate the same,” says Hendrickson. “One of the big flaws with elections is that people in power under the current rules are in charge of making new rules.”
And it’s no secret that expanding the Texas voter rolls would inevitably make them more diverse, which would in turn lead to huge changes in the way the state votes.
There is a loophole, of sorts, in the state’s lack of online voting. As of 2020, if you happen to be applying for a driver’s license online, you can renew your voter registration. It’s a move that has streamlined the process for Texans who already belong to the system, and one that has not raised any security red flags, despite serving millions of Texans.
“It’s worth noting that as of the last numbers I saw from the Secretary of State in around July, about half of registrations processed by the state in the last three-ish years were processed through that online system,” Hendrickson says. “So you are seeing a lot of people using this system already.”
Relying on a printer
But we’re not seeing any options for new voters. And as such, the state is throwing up unnecessary barriers for huge voting blocs – namely, young voters.
“It’s a really missed opportunity,” says Katie Campbell Shumway, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Houston. “There’s a lot of people who don’t even have printers at home. Even the idea that you can fill out the voter registration online, then print it and mail it in is a pretty big barrier for a lot of people who may not have access to a printer, or may not go to the post office the same way. Everything is so different now.”
That may sound like splitting hairs to older voters. I get it. But there is a lot of truth in that statement. There is no ink in my printer at home. Or at least there wasn’t earlier this month when my husband announced on a Saturday morning that he desperately needed to print our insurance cards ahead of having his car inspected. I referred him to the nearest Staples for a 10-cent copy.
Honestly, who keeps their home printer up and running these days? During an informal survey of my colleagues, I was not at all surprised to find that twice as many journalists at the Houston Landing said they don’t have access to a printer at home as those who said they do. The break was pronounced along pretty predictable generational lines, with Millennials serving as the swing voters.
Prospective voters could head to Staples, like my husband did a couple weeks ago. Or even stop at the Houston Public Library, but there’s a $1 minimum for all print jobs there. Both are barriers. And for voting to be truly fair, it needs to be free of obstacles.
It’s too late to see big changes for this election cycle – an off-year, in which voter turnout is traditionally lower than presidential and midterm elections. But Shumway has hope that the state of Texas will soon join the majority of the country in its process.
“We’re hopeful, and in every session we’re really advocating in Austin to allow for online voter registration,” she says. “We just keep trying to convince the legislature that it’s a smart idea for everybody.”
Need to register to vote ahead of the Oct. 10 deadline? Begin at votetexas.org.
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