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Opinion: Texas' Paper Voter Registration System Is Awful

Texas has refused to modernize and create an online voter registration system. As a result, communities across the state have less accurate voter rolls, and taxpayer money is wasted on paper.

voting polling place sign
(TNS) — I'm not saying I could hear the anguished cries of Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant from across town. But I knew he'd be worked up about this one.

Here was the headline from KUT and The Texas Tribune: "Texas says supply chain issues have limited the number of voter registration forms it can give out."

That's right. As roughly 1,500 people a day move to Texas, and as we're heading into a big election year where the governor and other races will be decided, the secretary of state's office is carefully rationing its distribution of voter registration forms because ... there's a paper shortage.

"When I saw the headline, I said, 'I know how we could reduce paper,'" Elfant told me. As Travis County's voting registrar, Elfant has argued for years that Texas should adopt an online voter registration system — something 40 other states, red and blue alike, have used quite safely for years. (Two more states are developing such systems now).

"The idea that we still have a paper-based [voter registration] system is just absurd," Elfant continued.

And then he went for the jugular. "Oklahoma is ahead of us, for God's sake. We know we don't want to be behind Oklahoma on anything."

Unlike Elfant, you probably don't spend much time thinking about Texas' voter registration system, paper or otherwise. But this struck me as a good moment to discuss how Texas' stubborn refusal to embrace online voter registration — an innovation that would clearly make it easier to vote — leaves our state with less accurate voter rolls at a greater cost to taxpayers.


Right now, when you register to vote, you fill out a paper form, including your name, birth date and driver's license number. That paper form goes to the county registrar — in Travis County, that's Elfant's office — where a worker types the information into a computer system.

From there, the process is fully digital. The information is electronically submitted to the Texas secretary of state's office, which checks the applicant's information against other databases. The state then sends Elfant's office a list of the verified applicants who should be added to the voter rolls.

Online voter registration would simply take out the middleman, that data entry person at Elfant's office. People would enter their information into a secure website. The secretary of state's office would continue to receive the information electronically and determine voter eligibility just as it does now.

Studies have shown significant savings in states that offered online voter registration, mainly by reducing the need for paper forms, postage and data entry staff (although paper forms are still available for those who need them). Arizona saw its administrative costs drop from 83 cents per paper registration to 3 cents per online registration. Multiply that across a state like Texas, where hundreds of thousands of new voters register each year, and the savings would be sizable.

Elfant also emphasizes such a system would improve the accuracy of the voter rolls. Have you ever tried to decipher someone else's terrible handwriting? The data entry folks in Elfant's office face that problem daily. If they misread someone's form and type something wrong, the application will be rejected.

Or if the application is simply too hard to read, or missing key information, it will be rejected.

Or if the application isn't postmarked by the 30-day cutoff before the next election, that person won't be allowed to vote in that election. In presidential election years, Elfant said, his office typically gets about 1,000 voter registration applications that aren't postmarked by the deadline, even though he suspects they were dropped in the mail in time.

"We have thousands of people who are denied their right to vote because of our paper-based system — far more than the 43 people the attorney general's office has voter fraud cases for," Elfant said. "I wish our Legislature would care as much about those people."


Online voter registration hasn't been controversial, at least outside of Texas.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by prominent Republican and Democratic election lawyers, wholeheartedly recommended it in 2014.

Republican states have it. So do Democratic ones. A decade ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures declared, "Online voter registration is a nonpartisan trend with a capital 'T.'"

Not so much in Texas, though. Instead of spending a few hundred thousand dollars to launch online voter registration, Texas spent years and untold resources fighting lawsuits over it.

In 2020, the courts finally forced Texas to provide online voter registration to people renewing their driver's licenses, as part of complying with the federal motor voter law. Since then, about 1.5 million Texans have registered to vote that way.

But the state still refuses to expand online voter registration beyond driver's license renewals. In the last few sessions, lawmakers wouldn't even consider such bills, including legislation by Austin state Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat.

In a 2015 committee hearing, the objections centered around fears of hacking, ignoring the plethora of services that Texas already provides securely online. A few opponents dreamed up "Mission Impossible"-style voter impersonation plots.

Then one critic said the quiet part out loud.

"What's at stake here for you three young Republican state reps?" Harris County Republican Party official Alan Vera asked GOP members of the House Committee on Elections in 2015. "The state of Colorado, your counterparts, passed online voter registration in 2010. Colorado is a red state. How could it hurt? Four years later, they don't have their jobs, and Colorado is not a red state anymore. That's what this is about."

Studies have found online voter registration doesn't help one party over the other. But, lamentably, when it comes to voting policies in Texas, we're past the point where facts matter.


This month's dust-up over paper voter registration forms arose because of the fine print. Lawmakers last session boosted the penalty for illegal voter registration from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor. The state needs to print new voter registration forms reflecting that — but it's running into difficulty getting enough forms from its vendor.

After some backlash, the secretary of state's office said voter applications on the old forms could still be submitted. The agency also noted people can print out their own application from the secretary of state's website, and then mail that in.

Elfant told me he's not worried about running out of forms. Travis County prints its voter registration applications in house. His staff is still distributing the old forms, with the updated penalty information stamped on them.

What irks Elfant — and should frustrate anyone who cares about good government — is that Texas is still clinging to a paper voter registration system that is costly, cumbersome and out of step with Texans' expectations. Nearly two-thirds of Texans said they support online voter registration, according to a 2020 poll by the Texas Politics Project.

"We know what the right thing is," Elfant told me. "Someday, we'll get there and wonder why it took so long."

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