If you thought voting rights battles ended with the election, think again. Tomorrow morning the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear argument in an action challenging Texas’s new laws restricting voter registration drives. U.S. District Court Judge Gregg Costa issued an injunction blocking the laws in August. The Brennan Center, along with the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, has filed an amicus brief urging the appellate panel to uphold the lower court’s ruling.
Each election cycle, hundreds of thousands of new voters are registered through nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote. Their efforts often target citizens who face the greatest barriers to registering at government offices or online, such as the elderly or disabled, and low-income and minority groups. Moreover, Texas could use the help. As of November 2010 (the latest available data), 53.2 percent of the state’s eligible citizens were registered to vote, which places the Lone Star State 46th in voter registration, between New Jersey and Nevada. Nationally, 59.8 percent of eligible citizens are registered, according to the Census Bureau.
But just as many states have attempted to restrict the franchise through voter ID laws, legislatures cracked down on voter registration drives conducted by third parties such as the League of Women Voters. Texas stands out for its particularly onerous restrictions. To register voters in Texas, one has to be appointed a county ‘volunteer deputy registrar’ or VDR. Among other things, all VDRs must be Texas residents, undergo a training program, hand-deliver all completed voter registration applications within 5 days of receipt, can only register voters in the county in which they were appointed, and can lose their appointment if they submit incomplete forms. “All told, the Texas regime is restrictive – and uniquely so,” Judge Costa wrote. “[N]o other state of which this Court is aware has gone as far as Texas in creating a regulatory web that controls so many aspects of third-party voter registration activity.”
The alleged purpose of these burdensome government regulations is to combat voter registration fraud. Yet, Texas’s stringent laws have not been shown to be any more likely to deter voter registration fraud. Rather, Texas’s laws limit the ability of private voter registration groups to engage citizens in the political process, and in so doing, have frustrated the primary purpose of voter registration drives and infringed upon basic First Amendment rights.
Sadly, all of this litigation could be avoided. Texas, like most states, relies on a voter registration system better suited to the 19th century than the 21st. Voter registration modernization should be a top policy priority in order to help bridge the gap. It would add more than 50 million eligible Americans to the rolls, save money, and curb the potential for fraud. As the world’s greatest democracy, the United States deserves nothing less.