By Mimi Marziani, Voter Protection Director, @MimiMarziani

Fifty years ago today, grassroots activists won a monumental victory when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was signed into law. But now, Republicans are doing everything in their considerable power to roll back that progress.

Texas is now the epicenter of this voting rights struggle. Just yesterday, the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that the GOP's strict voter ID law violates the VRA because it disparately impacts black and Latino voters. As if that wasn't enough, repeal of the Voting Rights Act is actually part of the Texas GOP's official platform (no joke).

That's why Battleground Texas will never stop defending the right to vote. We're negotiating with the Texas Secretary of State to fix rampant voter registration problems at the Department of Public Safety. We operate the Texas Voter Hotline to answer voter questions and address issues. And our volunteers have the courage to jump through hoops and register their fellow Texans to vote in the face of stupefying obstacles.

As you celebrate the Voting Rights Act today, can you pitch in $10 or more to support voter protection in Texas? It only takes a second.

The fight to protect our civil rights, including the fundamental right to vote, will continue as long as there are Republicans willing to write discriminatory laws and block access to the polls.

I've gotta get back to work. Thanks for your support.

By Matthew Stringer, Voter Protection Intern, @mgstringer

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—one of the most significant laws passed during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The VRA was a huge victory for grassroots activists who spent years registering voters and organizing communities to build the necessary foundation. But as detailed by a recent New York Times Magazine article, new efforts to restrict voting rights threaten to roll back decades of progress—including right here in Texas.

In 2011, Texas Republicans implemented a new redistricting scheme and photo ID law—the latter of which was struck down yesterday by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for violating the VRA. Less known, perhaps, is that they also made changes to the voter registration laws to make it more difficult for Texans to register their neighbors to vote.

Through my work with the Battleground Texas Voter Protection team, I have seen first-hand how restrictive laws and policies burden the ability of grassroots volunteers to empower communities through voter registration drives. Community-based voter registration drives are essential to increasing the number of registered voters and improving civic participation. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, these efforts are most effective in communities of color, where voters are nearly twice as likely to register through a voter registration drive as white voters. Moreover, voters who register at community drives “are more likely to go to the polls when compared with other common voter registration methods, such as registering at the DMV.” But—due to the myriad logistical obstacles and the potential for legal liability—Battleground Texas is one of only a few organizations in Texas that have been able to conduct large-scale voter registration efforts statewide.

Join our effort to protect the right to vote in Texas — pledge to register voters today.

To register voters in Texas, a person must first become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR). There are restrictions on who can be deputized—only Texas residents and those who are otherwise eligible to vote in Texas can apply. Plus, as many current Battleground volunteers know, becoming a VDR is a fragmented and often unaccommodating process. The mandatory VDR training is administered by individual counties, which are only required to offer one training class per month. Too often trainings are offered in the middle of the day when most people are at work—and, almost always, are only given in English.

Once a volunteer is certified as a VDR, that volunteer can only register voters in that specific county—there is no statewide VDR certification. To register voters in multiple counties, a VDR must request and receive permission from each individual county. And, volunteers who are VDRs in multiple counties may be required to adhere to various local rules, further complicating the process.

Moreover, because of ambiguities in Texas election law, volunteers can find themselves in situations where the law does not clearly define what they are supposed to do. This is particularly problematic because there are criminal penalties for failing to adhere to the laws. The restrictions surrounding voter registration drives have a chilling effect on civic participation, and prevent more volunteers from becoming actively involved in our democracy and building the grassroots support needed to restore the VRA.

Despite these challenges, there is some reason for encouragement. This past legislative session, SB 142 was signed into law, which will allow potential VDRs to take an online course on the Secretary of State’s website at their convenience, and then take a certification test at their county registrar’s office. But participation in this program is optional, so the reduced obstacles to becoming a VDR will only be truly realized if all counties participate.

Texas voter registration laws must be changed to encourage, rather than discourage, citizens to become deputized and register other citizens to vote. Allowing online VDR training is a good start, provided that it is implemented in a way that genuinely expands access. Implementing flexible training schedules, with mandatory weekend training sessions, ensuring that all VDR resources are available in Spanish, removing the requirement that VDRs be both Texas residents and qualified voters, and creating a statewide VDR certification are other changes that would make voter registration fairer and more accessible.

Volunteers and organizers working to change the political landscape in Texas can provide the sustained, grassroots support required to ease the voter registration rules and restore the full protections of the VRA. While change may not happen overnight, I’m proud of my contribution to expanding access to voting. I encourage other like-minded Texans to join Battleground Texas' fight to ensure that voting is fair and accessible in the Lone Star State. Together, I know that we are up for the challenge.

Can we count on you to register voters this year? Take the pledge now!

Pledge to Register Voters


By Senator Rodney Ellis, via Houston Chronicle

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This historic law was passed in response to an era in which many states, particularly in the South, mandated literacy tests, poll taxes and other devices to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of the African-American vote. There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grass-roots organizers who sacrificed blood and tears fighting these discriminatory devices in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background. We have come a long way to guarantee our citizens' right to vote is protected, but we still have a long way to go.

Instead of poll taxes and literacy tests of yesteryear, states now use controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to suppress the vote. In Texas, a federal court ruled last October that the state's voter ID law "creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose." When it comes to redistricting, Texas was the only state in the country that adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that have been ruled to be deliberately discriminatory against African-American and Latino voters. We are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

Recently, Battleground Texas and Waters & Kraus LLP sent a letter to the Texas Secretary of State on behalf of 11 Texas voters revealing further disturbing reports of Texans' voting rights being denied. Under federal law, whenever eligible voters apply for, renew or update their driver's licenses at a Department of Public Safety office, the state must give them a chance to register to vote or update their registration records.

Yet as the letter explains, the Texas voters named in the letter were unable to cast regular ballots in the 2014 general election either because their names were not listed on the registration rolls or their address information was outdated - even though each registered to vote through DPS. Several of these disenfranchised voters were denied the right to vote conventionally and forced to cast provisional ballots, some of which were not counted. One voter was unable to vote altogether.

The experiences of these eleven are examples of the systematic problems Texas citizens have faced. In less than two years, almost 5,000 Texans have complained to the Secretary of State about voter registration problems at DPS. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, as those 5,000 are only the voters who made the effort to get their complaint on record. The majority of those complaints were reportedly caused by either a clerk at DPS failing to transmit the person's request to be registered to vote or a confusing system that made it unclear whether people who updated their driver's license information online also automatically updated their voter registration information, as well.

Unfortunately, voter registration problems at DPS are not new. A series of articles by the Houston Chronicle alerted state officials to these registration glitches as early as 2012.

I was encouraged by the Chronicle's recent report that the Secretary of State's office agreed to investigate these complaints and review the policies and procedures that caused them. This is an encouraging first step, and I urge the state to work with stakeholders in good faith to find common sense, inexpensive solutions to the chronic registration problems at DPS.

Litigation shouldn't be the only tool our citizens have to guarantee their right to vote - especially in Texas, where we repeatedly rank in the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2014, turnout was 28.9 percent, ranking second-to-last in the nation. In 2012, it was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th.

Working together, we can identify reforms that will not only protect Texas voters and increase voter engagement but will also make our voter rolls more accurate and secure. The words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking to Congress 50 years ago, remain apt today: "We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait … the time for waiting is gone."

Ellis represents the Houston-area District 13 in the Texas Senate.

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