Federal Judge Orders Texas to Make Online Voter Registration Available

Harris County election clerk Nora Martinez, left, helps a voter Monday, June 29, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A Texas federal judge ruled Friday the state’s Republican leaders are violating the federal “motor voter” law by refusing to allow residents to simultaneously register to vote online when they apply for a driver’s license, file a change-of-address or renew online.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia concluded Texas Secretary of State and Department of Public Safety officials are violating the National Voter Registration Act by forcing users of the online driver’s license system to print out a blank voter registration form to send to their county registrar. He ordered the state to make the online voter registration available to the public by Sept. 23 — in less than a month.

“Defendants have been on notice of their continuous violation of the NVRA since at least 2016, yet defendants’ practices have remained unchanged,” the 68-page opinion states. 

“The public clearly has a paramount interest in removing voter registration barriers and having procedures that encourage rather than discourage voter registration. Defendants have offered no factual or legal argument that would justify denying the simultaneous voter registration to which [the plaintiff] is legally entitled.”

Passed in 1993, the NVRA requires states to allow residents to simultaneously register to vote when applying, renewing or updating their driver’s license, then the state is required to forward the application to local election officials.

Texas residents who choose to apply for, renew or update their driver’s license in-person are already allowed to simultaneously register to vote in-person.

The non-profit Texas Civil Rights Project first sued state officials in 2016 on behalf of lead plaintiff and voter Jarrod Stringer. Judge Garcia — an appointee of President Bill Clinton — ruled in his favor in 2018, but the Fifth Circuit later held Stringer lacked standing for injunctive relief because he failed to show a “continuing or threatened future injury” to his right to vote.

Stringer sued a second time this year, claiming he did sustain a future injury when he moved from Bexar County to Harris County and was not allowed to update his voter registration when he updated his driver’s license information online. 

This second suit was also filed on behalf of the Move Texas Civic Fund, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two other individual voters, with the Texas Democratic Party joining as an intervenor-plaintiff.

Judge Garcia was not convinced by the state’s claims that Texas election laws require a physical “signature,” not electronic signatures.

“Neither federal nor state law limits the signature requirement to physical hand written signatures on paper (or ‘wet signatures’),” the opinion states. 

“DPS already uses electronic records and previously imaged electronic signatures for every Texan that uses the online system … [a]nd SOS already uses electronic records and previously imaged electronic signatures for voter registration purposes and admits that electronic signatures comply with signature requirements and the NVRA and Texas Election Code.”

The offices of Secretary of State Ruth Hughs and Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling Friday evening.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation in the matter.

The Texas Civil Rights Project cheered the ruling, tweeting “it’s time for state politicians to stop obstructing democracy.”

Zenen Jaimes Perez, the group’s advocacy & communications director, noted how the litigation has dragged on for four years.

“Imagine how many people have lost out on their opportunity to register to vote,” he tweeted. “How much taxpayer money has been spent by our Attorney General. All to keep Texans from voting. It’s despicable.”

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