Texas voter registration policy violates federal law, judge says

Voter registration policies in Texas violate federal law, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in an order unveiled Tuesday, marking another voting-rights legal setback for the state's government.

Under the so-called "Motor Voter" provisions of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, voters who apply for or renew their driver's license must be provided an opportunity to register to vote as well.

But Texans who went online to update their driver's license information ran into roadblocks that in-person applicants did not, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project, which brought the suit against Texas in 2016.

For example, the plaintiffs alleged, users who clicked “I want to register to vote" while updating their driver's license information were directed to a form that they had to print and mail. They also received a notification stating that clicking "yes" did not complete the voter registration process.

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That allegedly confounded some plaintiffs and led to "widespread confusion," according to the lawsuit. The online process amounted to an illegal stumbling block, given that the in-person process was smoother, the plaintiffs charged.

The plaintiffs specifically alleged that the unequal treatment of in-person voters, as compared to online ones, violated both the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and federal law.

"For too long, the state of Texas has ignored federal voting rights laws."

— Texas Civil Rights Project director Beth Stevens

“Everybody – all of our plaintiffs and many other people we have spoken to – once they get their driver’s license, they assume that their voter registration information has been updated, too,” Texas Civil Rights Project President Mimi Marziani told NPR. “And then they show up at the polls thinking they are going to be able to cast a ballot and they are not able to."

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U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said a written opinion explaining the reasoning behind his ruling will be released within 14 days.

Texas does not currently permit online voter registration, according to the Texas Tribune, and may be forced to as a result of the ruling.

“For too long, the state of Texas has ignored federal voting rights laws intended to ensure that all eligible voters have an opportunity to register to vote,” Beth Stevens, voting rights director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told the Texas Tribune. “We look forward to seeing deep changes in [the Texas Department of Public Safety’s] voter registration practices in the coming months, affecting well over a million Texans every year.”

The ruling is the latest in a string of voting-rights cases involving Texas. The state has spent years fighting to preserve both its voter ID law -- which was among the strictest in the U.S. -- and voting maps that were both passed by GOP-controlled Legislature in 2011.