Despite the excitement and wall-to-wall media coverage of this year’s presidential nominating contests, Texas still had one of the lowest voter participation rates during this year’s primaries – about 21 percent.
Some Texans are trying to fix this problem by innovating the way we administer elections here in the Lone Star State.
A company based in Austin, Think Voting, recently debuted an app, created in partnership with Voto Latino, that would make it easier to register people to vote. It’s called Voter Pal. Joe Santori, the founder of Think Voter, explained that with just a smartphone and an ID, it takes roughly 15 seconds to register someone to vote using the app.
“Your device switches to a camera mode, and the app focuses in and very quickly has captured the information on the back of your ID via the QR code,” he said.
The app then takes that information and populates all the fields people need to fill out when they register to vote. And in just a few clicks you’re registered—almost.
“It gives you the last bit of instructions, which is you are going to email this and print this form,” Santori explains upon running through the very final step on the app.
“In Texas, you have to place a wet signature on a voter registration form. So the necessary evil is printing it, signing it and mailing it. This is where it gets hard.”
This app hits a brick wall: In Texas, online voter registration isn't legal. So, Santori said, there’s really no way to make this last step easier.
“This is where online voter registration would be really powerful. Instead of printing out the form and mailing it all and signing it, you’d be done,” he said.
For folks in the tech industry, like Santori and his co-founder Jeff Cardenas, this is pretty frustrating.
Cardenas said the whole point is to make this process as simple as possible.
“I would definitely say that the laws that we have in place are a hindrance to innovation,” he said. “We can do just about anything online. You can get a mortgage now with Rocket Mortgage. There’s a lot of other things, and the question we get asked all the time is, ‘Why is it so difficult to participate when the goal is to participate?’”
According to Cardenas, online voter registration is cheaper, more accurate and more efficient.
In the tech world, this kind of efficiency would have been implemented a while ago, but things move slowly in state government.
This was a lesson that state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, learned during her first legislative session last year.
“I introduced House Bill 76, which would have allowed for online voter registration, and I have never seen a bill with so much support not get an early hearing and get out of the House, at least,” she said.
Seventy-six representatives co-authored the bill [see the full bill text above], but it still got slow-tracked. It got a last minute hearing as sort of a courtesy, Israel said, and at that point there was no way it would pass before the session ended. She says some Republican leaders in the Legislature were raising concerns.
“To give you a story from the floor one of my colleagues said, ‘Celia, if we pass this, what's to prevent you from going to one of these music festivals here in Austin that you are so proud of, and you go up and down the line, and get people registered to vote?’” Israel recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely nothing. That’s the point.' So, there is a fear about people voting and being more engaged in voting.”
That fear was summed up by Alan Vera with the Republican Party of Harris County.
“What’s at stake here for you three young Republican state reps?” Vera directed at lawmakers during that hearing for Israel’s bill last year. “The State of Colorado, your counterparts, passed online voter registration in 2010. Colorado is a red state. How could it hurt? Four years later they don’t have their jobs, and Colorado is not a red state anymore. That’s what this is about.”
For others, this is about solving a growing problem here in Texas. The state has notoriously bad voter participation, which is why Cardenas said lawmakers need to embrace change.
“The way that we have been doing things in the past is clearly not working, because it’s not bringing in more people into the process,” Cardenas explained. “So, we need to do something different, and now we have technology that is making it easier to do things.”
Cardenas describes bringing voting into the 21st century as a long war. Online voter registration is just the first battle they have to win.
Cinde Weatherby with the Texas League of Women Voters said her group and others are already gearing up for next year’s legislative session.
“We are working on this issue right now,” she said. “We have already have begun to talk with people around the state.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states plus Washington, D.C. have online registration–that includes Texas' neighbors Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Another three states have recently passed legislation to create online voter registration systems and are now working on implementing them.