Why recent changes to Texas election laws may unintentionally undermine voter turnout
The Texas Secretary of State is fighting to uphold Texas’s new voter photo identification law against federal scrutiny. The press has reported extensively on the battle brewing between the states and the United States Department of Justice over the impact that voter ID laws will have on voter turnout. Many groups believe that voter ID laws—which require persons to show photo ID before casting their votes—unfairly target minority voters, making it more difficult for them to participate in the democratic process. While the photo ID requirement is the most widely reported change to the Texas election process, it is not the only new roadblock likely to affect voter turnout in the Lone Star State’s upcoming elections.
New Burdens for Voluntary Deputy Voter Registrars
In Texas, the voter registrar in each county may appoint one or more deputy registrars. Deputy registrars are volunteers who assist in the registration of voters. They distribute applications, help people fill out applications, and generally promote voter registration.
Before the changes, a county registrar could appoint any person eighteen or older to serve as a volunteer deputy registrar. Following the passage of HB 2194, the age requirements remain, but now deputies must also meet the requirements to be a qualified voter (although they need not actually be registered voters), including the citizenship requirements. In other words, deputies must be U.S. citizens. Under HB 1570, deputies must also complete a formal training developed by the Texas secretary of state before they may assist in the registration of voters.
No one knows how many deputy registrars—and voters—will be affected by Texas’s new laws. Deputies serve on a voluntary basis, so any additional burdens placed on deputies could reduce the size of the deputy volunteer pool. This could be problematic for groups that rely on deputy registrars to reach out to potential voters, usually during voter registration drives.
Voter registration drives are a popular means of improving voter turnout, which is why they are often used by civic organizations, political campaigns, and student groups to rope in large numbers of like-minded voters. In the November 2008 presidential election, nearly 9 million citizens reported having registered at a voter registration drive. Voter registration drives are also used extensively in Texas. As reported by the Texas Tribune, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law estimates “that in 2008, about 26,000 voters were registered in Texas through drives that ‘have now been made extremely difficult or impossible under new laws.’” The Brennan Center also argues that HB 2194’s citizenship requirement will disproportionately affect minorities “who are more likely than whites to register through registration drives.”
Unforeseen Consequences: The Ripple Effect from Federal Ballot Timing Requirements on Texas Runoff Elections
Motivating Texans to register to vote is just the beginning. Getting them to vote is the main hurdle, and it may have just gotten a whole lot more difficult in Texas, albeit inadvertently.
Texas uses a two-round voting system (aka, runoff voting) in its primaries. Voters cast their ballots on Primary Day, like normal. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, then the top two candidates compete in a runoff election. If this happens, voters must return to the polls for a second round of voting.
Runoff voting promotes political bargaining by the two candidates participating in the runoff election as they vie for the support of voters whose first choice candidate has been eliminated. But runoff systems are not without their own problems. Bringing voters to the polls once is a challenge; asking them to return for a runoff election is a real struggle. If the runoffs occur long after the primaries, Election Day momentum drops, and runoff participation is likely to suffer.
Texas may learn that lesson the hard way thanks to recent changes in Federal election laws.
As reported in the Texas Tribune: “Federal lawmakers stretched the timelines for elections to allow voters overseas and in the military more time to request ballots, to vote and to mail in their selections. Earlier this year, Texas legislators extended the election calendar to meet federal law.” This had a large effect on the state’s runoff election timeline.
Historically, Texas’s runoff elections occurred five weeks after the primaries. But in 2012, runoff candidates will need to retain voter attention for eleven weeks (March 6 to May 22)—a period longer than the primaries themselves! Candidates will need to spend more money campaigning to combat voter disinterest, but these expenditures may not be enough. In the end, the new federal laws designed to protect overseas voters may end up reducing the number of voters who participate in Texas’s runoff elections.
The extension of Texas’s runoff election schedule and the new requirements for voluntary deputy voter registrars have not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny as Texas’s voter photo ID law. But if the opponents of these new laws are correct, they could have a noticeable impact on voter turnout within the Lone Star State. The effect of both, therefore, should be carefully monitored throughout the 2012 election cycle and beyond.
Daniel Carrico is a third-year law student at William & Mary.