Voter Registration Is Key to Restoring the Voting Rights Act

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.

The key

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.

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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.

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