Oct 23, 2016

Voter Registration Crush Renews Calls for Online Signup System

Reporting Texas

On the night of Oct. 11, the deadline to register to vote in Texas, Gretchen Nagy, director of voter registration for Travis County, opened a file cabinet at her office filled with what she guessed was 6,000 paper registration forms. It was just a fraction of thousands of forms that had to be entered into the county’s computer system.

Her staff and 15 temporary workers have been working 12-hour shifts in the past two weeks to input information from those hand-written forms and thousands more by Oct. 24, the state’s deadline for receiving updated registration data.

“An experienced worker can do about 30 to 40 forms an hour,” Nagy said, “but when you have 15,000, that’s really difficult.” It’s even harder when workers have to decipher hard-to-read writing or deal with incomplete forms.

Voters whose information is added to the county database by Monday will receive a unique identification number from the Texas Secretary of State’s office and will be able to vote Nov. 8.

The job was a bigger challenge this year because of a wave of new registrations that brought the county total to a record 725,600 voters – about 90,000 more than the 2008 record.

County voter registrar Bruce Elfant said it would cost the county hundreds of thousand of dollars to meet the state deadline. Online registration would be faster, reduce errors and cost far less if Texas had online registration, he said.

Critics of online registration have raised concerns about security. Mike Sullivan, voter registrar in Harris County, has said that the current system works fine and there’s no reason to change it.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia allow online voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona was the first to implement online registration in 2002. There, the information a voter enters is checked against the information and signature on their driver’s license or state-issued ID card. Other states, such as Delaware and Missouri, allow electronic signatures by stylus or tablet to register, and Minnesota requires only a Social Security number to get on the voter rolls.

According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trust, Arizona’s cost of registering a voter fell from 83 cents to 3 cents after implementing the online option.

In Travis County, Nadgy said, “I’m spending two-thirds of our budget from the state on workers trying to decipher people’s handwriting.”

In the 2015 legislative session, state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, introduced House Bill 76  to allow online registration.

“This is not a red state-blue state thing,” Israel told Reporting Texas. Traditionally conservative states such as Oklahoma, West Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia have implanted online registration in the last five years. “It’s about which states want to save their county government money and which states want to have accurate voter rolls.”

While Israel said her bill had broad support from both parties and voter registration officials in Travis and Bexar counties, it was left pending in the House Elections Committee. “I just couldn’t get the committee chair to feel comfortable with it,” Israel said

Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, a Republican from Dallas who chairs the committee, did not return calls for comment nor did other committee members.

Sullivan of Harris County also did not return calls. But he laid out his concerns in a May oped for the Houston Chronicle.

“The current voter registration system in Texas works and works well. Virtually no case has come to light of someone wanting to register within the applicable deadlines and being unable to do so,” he wrote.

He also said that Israel’s bill was vague about what rules the Secretary of State’s office would have to create for online registration. “The public has little idea how the new system would work, and no way to assess its integrity,” he wrote.

The bill would have allowed citizens to fill out an application online using only designated websites and would require the Texas Secretary of State to obtain a digital signature of the voter from the Department of Public Safety’s database – similar to Arizona’s process. The cost to the state: about $208,000 for the needed software, according to a fiscal note from the Legislative Budget Board.

Opponents raise concerns about the integrity of online registration and whether such a system could be hacked. While there have been very few instances of hacking online voter registration databases, it’s not unheard of. In August, the Illinois State Board of Elections said that information on up to 200,000 voters was hacked, but no voter information was erased or modified.

Elfant, the Travis County voter registrar, said the risks associated with online registration are low, and that the increased convenience and accuracy when voters enter their own information would get more people on the rolls.

“The answer to hacking is not to turn the clock backwards,” Elfant said, noting that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and other government agencies have embraced forms of online registration. He also contends that voter information is already uploaded to a state database secured by a firewall.

Israel also said that fears about security are overblown, and she plans to continue to advocate for online registration in the 2017 legislative session.

“For us to act as if this issue is about security is to raise a fear that is a misguided fear, and I can only assume its because they’re afraid more Texans will come out to vote,” she said.