Texas Democrats plan to create a voter registration army – via Zoom

Sam Levine in New York
Photograph: LM Otero/AP

Texas Democrats plan to use Zoom to create an army of voter registration volunteers, a novel approach to work around the state’s severe restrictions on voter registration during the Covid-19 pandemic. The effort comes as voter registration efforts, both in Texas and around the US have effectively stalled just months before the presidential election.

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Texas makes it extremely difficult to conduct voter registration drives, even outside of the pandemic. The state requires anyone who wants to do so to become a volunteer deputy registrar, a process that requires going to a county-run training. Only Texas residents who are eligible to vote in the state can get the certification. Texas has 254 counties, but someone can only legally register voters in the county in which they are deputized and their certification expires at the end of every even-numbered year. 

Some states place no restrictions on voter registration drives at all, while others have more modest ones in place like requiring groups to register with the state before they begin their drive. Civil rights groups have long called the Texas requirement a form of voter suppression.

“Texas has some of the strictest voter registration laws in the country,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “In Texas, volunteer deputy registrars can be criminally prosecuted for what most of us would consider administrative errors while they’re registering people.”

Working around the state’s barriers, the Texas Democratic party plans to partner with a local election official in Travis county to conduct a mass deputization during its virtual state convention this week. More than 2,000 people have already signed up for the training on Saturday, which will allow the party to get an unprecedented number of people certified at once.

“This is the party adapting and coming up with a creative solution to work around a legal framework that is absurd,” said Luke Warford, director of voter expansion for the Texas Democratic party, which hopes to add at least 2 million new voters to the rolls this year.

Bruce Elfant, who oversees voter registration in Travis county, home of Austin, will administer the session and certify those who attend. If a volunteer wants to register voters in another county, they have to take their certificate to their local election official, who can then officially deputize them. 

“I don’t know if we’ve ever done anything this big,” he said. “We’ve certainly never done anything remote like this.” 

He added that he made an offer to the state Republican party to conduct an identical training session during the party’s convention in July, but has yet to hear back. James Dickey, the chairman of the Texas Republican party, said in a statement that the party was planning for a training for its convention in Houston in July and had already registered more than 89,000 new voters using a “phone-and-mail based process that doesn’t require deputy voter registrars.”

Elfant said voter registration had “flatlined” in his county. Under normal circumstances, the county would add a few thousand voters to its rolls each month. But in the last few months, his office had added just 500 total, he said. In Tarrant and Harris counties, two of the biggest in the state, officials said they have also seen similar dips in voter registration.

Heider Garcia, the election administrator in Tarrant county, hypothesized the drop in voter registrations was because state motor vehicle licensing offices, usually a hub of voter registrations, have been closed. Advocacy groups have also been unable to conduct voter registration drives in person.

The Democratic plan comes amid an increasingly bitter war over voting in the state, long a Republican stronghold which Democrats believe they can turn in their favor because of changing demographics. Democrats have brought a number of lawsuits challenging Texas’s restrictions on mail-in voting. Nationally, Republicans are spending at least $20m on voting litigation and want to recruit up to 50,000 volunteers to watch the polls in November. 

Texas does not allow people to register to vote online, a policy advocates say is making it nearly impossible to register to vote in the state during Covid-19. Texas Democrats are suing over that restriction and launched a website in April aiming to serve as workaround.

Warford said that the mass deputization would put the party in a position to aggressively register people once it was safe to do so. 

“We now have a whole new group of people that are ready to hit the ground running registering voters,” he said. “That’s super smart strategically for us.”