It is time to revamp Texas’ voter registration policies

Cade Stone

As reported in the Daily Texan’s Oct. 24 cover piece, the University of Texas was named the most improved university in undergraduate voting turnout in the country by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The University’s undergraduate voter turnout rate increased from 41.7 percent to 56.5 percent between 2012 and 2016. The gains in voting were the result of determination and a massive voter registration effort undertaken by Travis County voter registration officials and student leaders across campus, including TX Votes and a campus-wide Civic Engagement Alliance launched to increase voter registration. Through outreach to classrooms and organizations, tabling around campus and training several hundred students as volunteer deputy registrars, the alliance and its affiliated UT organizations registered more than 17,000 UT students to vote leading up to the 2016 election.

And yet, in Texas and many other states, voting and registration rates remain relatively underwhelming due, in large part, to registration policies that pose a barrier to voting. To further ease access to the polls, it’s time to make institutional changes — such as same-day registration and automatic voter registration.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau about 55.7 percent of the U.S. voting-age population voted in the 2016 presidential election, with Texas ranking among the bottom five states in terms of turnout for the third consecutive presidential election at 51.6 percent of eligible voters. Among the 32 OECD nations (the organization of highly developed, democratic nations), these results land the U.S. in 28th place. Were Texas measured as an independent nation, it would beat out only Switzerland and Chile. Texas, predictably, fell well below the U.S. average registration rate of 64 percent, with just 58 percent of eligible citizens registered to vote prior to the election.

Deconstructing the undersized influence of Texans at the polls begins with the state’s approach to voter registration.

In order to vote in Texas, one must be registered 30 days prior to Election Day. According to a 2017 Texas Media & Society Survey, when asked if they could register to vote on Election Day, 22 percent of Texans said yes and 33 percent said they were not sure. This divergence means thousands of potential voters are turned away frustrated from the polls, with transient populations such as university students particularly disenfranchised. Hawaii, Mississippi and West Virginia, the only three states with worse turnout than Texas in 2016, have similar laws requiring registration to be completed weeks in advance.

We can learn much from the states and nations who demonstrate higher voter turnout. While the U.S. leaves registration to individual onus, nations such as the UK and Australia aggressively seek out and register eligible voters. In Germany and Sweden, citizens are automatically registered upon reaching eligible voting age. The six states with the highest voter turnout in 2016 all offered same-day registration, which allows voters to register and vote on the same day, at the same place as the election. Since 2014, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of automatic voter registration, many automatically registering citizens who interact with a government agency or who come of eligible voting age. As the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School Law argues, this “boosts registration rates, cleans up the rolls, makes voting more convenient and reduces the potential for voter fraud, all while lowering costs.” In each case, the institutions that thrive on active, engaged voters sought to empower and encourage the populations they depend upon. They recognized a registered citizen is a citizen that much closer to voting.

There are a multitude of governmental options to boost voter turnout, but the simplest and most effective revolve around shouldering the burden of responsibility for registration and easing the process through which Americans can fulfill their civic duty. Higher voter turnout and civic engagement are inherent goods, vital to a well-functioning democracy. Organizations like TX Votes and the Civic Engagement Alliance, no matter how effective, need not be asked to overcome hurdles the government can itself remove. Be it through automatic or same-day voter registration, unnecessary obstacles in the path of a democratic right should be eliminated.

Stone is a Plan II and government major. He works as a research assistant at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.