Saturday, November 3, 2012

Broken Texas Motor Voter Registration Process

by Michael Handley

I haven't been publishing articles over the last twelve days because I've been working at one of the busiest Collin County Early Voting polling locations as an Alternate Election Judge.

The Texas Motor Voter Registration process remains broken.  The most common voter problem Early Voting Election Judges, Alternate Judges and Clerks across Texas handled again this year was the failure of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to register some people to vote when they obtained, updated or renewed their driver's license.  In 2012, over a third of all new Texas voters registered to vote through the DPS.

Every day during early voting, several people who tried to check-in to vote at my polling location were not listed on the Collin County poll list. The first question I asked these would-be voters was, "when did you register to vote in Collin County?" The answer most often given by the would-be voters was, "when I changed the address on my driver's license at the DPS (or on the DPS website) after I moved to Collin County," from another Texas county. A quick voter registration look up on the Texas Secretary of State's "Am I Registered to Vote" web page often found these new, and some not so new, Collin County residents remained registered in the county of their former residence.
The lucky voters who remained registered in their former county of residence got to listen to my short "Limited Ballot speech:  "Since you recently moved to Collin County from another Texas county, where you are still registered to vote, you may vote a limited ballot in Collin County. The limited ballot will include national, statewide and perhaps some district candidates.  You may vote a limited ballot only by appearing in person at the Main Election Office for Collin County, located near the intersection of highways 75 and 380 on the north side of McKinney -- about a 30 minute drive. It is illegal under Texas election law for you to return to your previous county of residence to cast a ballot. Texas law requires that you vote in the county where where you currently reside.  The limited ballot option is available only during early voting - it is NOT available on Election Day."

A few voters appearing at my early polling location who had moved from Collin County to another close by county, but who did not register to vote in their new county and remain registered in Collin County also got my short  limited ballot speech. Except in their case I directed them to their new home county's main election locations. A few of these people complained that they went to an early polling place in their new home county and were told that they had to return to Collin County, where they are registered, in order to vote a regular ballot.

The very small number of less lucky Collin County voters, who were not registered in any Texas county, got to listen to my short "Provisional Ballot" speech and proceed through the Provisional Ballot process.
The broken Texas Motor Voter Registration process has been the number one problem for voters and polling place officials for many years.

As the first week of 2012 General Election Early Voting progressed, the Texas Secretary of State's Office emailed an alert to all county voter registrars warning of "interruptions" in the state's motor voter process to electronically transfer voter registration applications from DPS offices around Texas to its office. The alert came after voters across Texas, who found they were not registered in the county where they currently reside and lodged complaints about their failed attempts to register to vote during their last visit to a DPS driver's license office.

Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 - the "Motor Voter Act" as it's commonly known - all states dramatically expanded sites for voter registration to include drivers' license offices. But the process wasn't fully automated in Texas until May 2010 and remains prone to human errors and technical problems.

Texas DPS clerks are suppose to ask every voting aged client they process if they want to register to vote or update their voter registration information. If the DPS client replies yes, state employees asks eligibility questions and keys that information directly into their computers.

Automated software formats the voter registrant’s information — name, age, address, D.L. number, Social Security Number, citizenship status, etc. — and automatically generates a voter registration application with all the registrant’s information. The DPS employee then asks the registrant to review the application for correctness, and sign it using a pen. The signed voter registration application then is electronically transmitted to the office responsible for processing voter registration applications. If all the voter application information is verified, the registrant's name and identifying information is added to the Texas Secretary of State's statewide TEAM voter registration data base and the voter registration data base in the county where the registrant resides. This is the process that most voters complain has failed to get them registered to vote in the county where they currently reside.

Many unregistered voters also state that they thought they were registered because they checked the 'Register to Vote' box on one of the DPS web forms. Most people who use the Texas Department of Public Safety's online Change your Driver's License or I.D. Address or Renew your Driver's License or I.D. web form pages think they registered to vote just by checking the 'Register to Vote' box on the web page form. But checking the 'Register to Vote' box only links them to the Secretary of State Election website registration web form.  The registrant must then complete, print, sign and mail, by U.S. Post Office snail mail, the registration application to the Voter Registrar's Office - a process step most fail to understand and complete.

The Houston Chronicle recently published a good article, Motor Voters Missing On Rolls, giving more background on this problem.

Finally, this leads to the following question: If the Texas Department of Public Safety motor voter registration process is already so overloaded and error prone, how can the DPS handle Texas' SB 14 voter photo I.D. law mandate to issue Election Identification Cards to the hundreds of thousands of registered Texas voters who don't already hold one of the select government issued voter photo I.D. documents required by that law?

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