Texas’s Voter-Registration Laws Are Straight Out of the Jim Crow Playbook

By The Nation October 6, 2016

by Ari Berman, The Nation

At 10 am on a Tuesday morning in September, Babatunde Adeleye, a 33-year-old naturalized US citizen from Nigeria, arrived at the Bexar County Elections Department in San Antonio. It’s a brand-new building in an otherwise unappealing industrial park along the interstate, 10 minutes south of downtown. There were inspirational posters on the wall featuring American flags and sunsets, highlighting words like “success” and “momentum.”

Tunde, as everyone calls him, stood up, raised his right hand, and took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State.” He was being deputized not as a cop, but instead to register voters. The parallels, however, were impossible to ignore: Texas treats voter registration like a criminal offense and makes it as difficult as possible to do.

Tunde grew up in Lagos and studied petroleum engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He got a job in the oil fields of Oklahoma but was laid off when the industry went bust. He became a citizen last year, so 2016 marks the first presidential election he can vote in. After moving to San Antonio three months ago, he began working with MOVE San Antonio, a progressive nonprofit that registers young voters. “I come from a background where poverty was the order of the day,” Tunde says. “The first step to empowering people to have a say in their community is to register them to vote. If you don’t vote, you don’t have a say.”

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Before he could register anyone, however, Tunde had to navigate Texas’s draconian voter-registration laws, beginning with this course. The state has no online registration, and anyone who registers voters must be deputized by the county at a training session that typically occurs once a month, sometimes less. The volunteer deputy registrars (VDRs), as they’re known, must be deputized on a county-by-county basis, and they can only be deputized in counties adjacent to their own, which makes statewide drives practically impossible in a massive state like Texas, with its 254 counties.

If Tunde led a registration drive outside a San Antonio Spurs basketball game, for example, he could collect forms only from people who live in Bexar County, where he’s deputized, and wouldn’t be able to register anyone attending the game from Austin, Dallas, or Houston. This is a huge problem in Texas, where many cities sprawl over multiple counties. A voter-registration drive in the state’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses most of the Panhandle, would require deputizing workers in 41 counties.

“It’s a big barrier,” Tunde says. “We already have low turnout. By having all these new restrictions in place, it further draws down the number of people who vote.” In 2014, Texas ranked 45th in voter registration and dead last in voter turnout. Tunde was the 908th person deputized in Bexar County as of mid-September, which means there are roughly 1,000 people who can register voters in America’s seventh-biggest city during a critical presidential election.

The restrictions don’t end there. Only US citizens with Texas residency can become VDRs, which prohibits out-of-state workers, legal permanent residents, or undocumented immigrants from helping. All VDRs must deliver voter-registration forms to the county election office in person within five days of receiving them. They can’t photocopy the documents to keep track of new registrants, and must personally input all of the registration data. Failure to comply with any of these provisions can lead to criminal prosecution.

VDRs can be terminated at any time by the county registrar, and their appointments expire at the end of even-numbered years, which means that Tunde will have to do this training all over again if he wants to register voters in 2017 or 2018. “You have to have a PhD in voter-obstacle-ology to navigate the system,” says Lydia Bean, executive director of Faith in Texas, which registers voters in the Dallas–Fort Worth area.

VDRs were established in 1985, but the restrictions on voter registration were significantly toughened by the Texas legislature in 2011 to require county trainings, ban non-Texans, and prohibit VDRs from being compensated based on the number of people they register. As a result, “Texas is the most restrictive state in the union when it comes to voter registration,” according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The law’s sponsor, GOP state representative Jim Murphy of Houston, sees this as a good thing. “It takes away the defense of ‘I didn’t know I couldn’t do that,’” Murphy said, speaking to the Austin American-Statesman. “Clearly, I would agree it’s additional work, but so is having insurance for your house if it burns down.”

Nationally, a quarter of eligible Americans—62 million people—are not registered to vote. Three million of them live in Texas, including 2.2 million unregistered Latinos and hundreds of thousands of unregistered African Americans. Texas has more unregistered voters than the total population of 20 states. While its strict voter-ID law has attracted national scrutiny for discriminating against people of color and has repeatedly been struck down by the courts, the state’s restrictions on voter-registration drives have received little attention, even though they prevent millions of black and Latino citizens from participating in the political process.

“If you’re not deputized and you register your mother, you can get a felony,” says Jeremy Bird, the national field director for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. “The barriers are so great, and the penalties are so high, nobody wants to invest resources in registering voters.”

After the 2012 election, Bird founded Battleground Texas to help long-suffering Democratic candidates in this deep-red state. The group deputized 9,000 people and registered nearly 100,000 voters during the 2014 cycle. But they were threatened with prosecution by the state after right-wing activist James O’Keefe filmed an undercover video showing an organizer copying phone numbers from voter-registration forms so that Battleground Texas could follow up with the voters, which opponents of the group claimed violated the Texas election code. A judge dismissed the charges, but the threat of criminal prosecution had a chilling effect on registration efforts. In 2016, Battleground Texas has a fraction of its staff from 2014 and plans to register just a fourth of the voters it did that year.

“Anytime someone has success registering minority or Democratic voters, there’s an investigation opened to scare people away from doing it,” says Chad Dunn, a voting-rights lawyer in Houston. After a progressive group called Houston Votes submitted 25,000 voter-registration applications in 2010, mostly from low-income people of color, Tea Party activists accused the group of voter fraud. Then–Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor, sent agents in bulletproof vests to raid the group’s office and destroy its computers and records. Charges were never filed, but Houston Votes was forced to shut down.

National groups that specialize in voter registration have been forced to abandon Texas. “We decided that there was no way that we could do voter-registration work here without the risk of prosecution,” says Michael Slater, president of Project Vote, which has registered 5.6 million voters nationwide since 1994, including 35,000 in Texas in 2008. Project Vote challenged the registration restrictions in 2012 and won a preliminary injunction from a federal district court, but it was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the most conservative appellate court in the country.

Texas has a long and ugly history of blocking blacks and Latinos from voting through poll taxes, all-white primaries, and English-only ballots. The civil-rights movement used large-scale registration drives to challenge voter-suppression tactics in the Jim Crow South. In 1964, hundreds of college students from the North went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, which helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A similar effort would be impossible in Texas today: The state’s voter-registration laws “would have rendered Freedom Summer illegal,” federal district court judge Gregg Costa wrote in August 2012.

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The same day I attended the VDR training session with Tunde, I received an announcement that Oregon had registered 300,000 new voters in the past year, a 14 percent increase from 2015. If Texas is the toughest state in the country to register voters, Oregon is the easiest. In January, it became the first state to automatically register any citizen who obtains a driver’s license or a state ID at the Department of Motor Vehicles. There are no deputies to train, no forms to return within five days, no threats of criminal prosecution.

It’s a favorite parlor game in Washington to predict when Texas will go blue, but most people are severely underestimating the difficulty of translating the state’s changing demographics into a shift in political power. In 2012, only a quarter of Texas Latinos were contacted by political parties or organizations before the election, making them “the most undermobilized [group] in the country,” according to the group Latino Decisions.

Jeremy Bird estimates that 750,000 new Democratic-leaning voters must be registered in Texas over the next four years to make the state competitive. The opportunity is there—905,000 new Latinos will become eligible to vote in Texas in 2016—but few organizations have the capacity to register them en masse or to comply with the demands of Texas law.

“There’s no resources to register Latinos in Texas,” says Selene Gomez, a San Antonio–based organizer for Mi Familia Vota. “People look at it as a red state and move on. Campaigns keep going to the same people. That’s why a lot of Latinos don’t come out: because a lot of us are never talked to. No one thinks about us.” There are half a million unregistered voters in the Rio Grande Valley, which comprises four counties in South Texas along the Mexican border, but only one group—the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas, which has just two staffers—is working full-time to register them.

Despite the obstacles, people are registering, especially in urban areas with targeted registration drives. According to US census data, 2.1 million new voters have been added to the rolls since 2012, and the Hispanic share of new voters has increased by 6 percent during that time. But the overall percentage of registered voters has remained flat, at 74 percent. That means registration efforts are barely keeping up with the state’s rapidly changing demographics.

It’s only a thought experiment at this point, but automatic registration would make a bigger difference in Texas than in virtually any other state. “If you got millions of unregistered Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans registered, that alone makes it a competitive state,” Bird points out. “There would be a fundamental shift immediately.”

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MOVE San Antonio, where Tunde works, is part of a collection of state-based civic groups known as the Bus Federation. The founding affiliate in Oregon, the Bus Project, started out in 2001 by crisscrossing the state in a bus to register voters.

The Bus Federation’s “secretary of states” is Henry Kraemer. He’s 29 years old, with a scruffy beard and a tattoo of the last 10 words of the Gettysburg Address on his back. He admits that he’s “infected with the quirk of Oregon pretty intensely.” He was wearing red Vans and a tie with American flags and a bald eagle on it when I met him.

During the 2008 election, the Bus Project registered 23,000 new voters. But Kraemer couldn’t stop thinking about all the people it didn’t reach. After the election, the group’s organizers sat down and thought about how to get rid of voter registration as it currently exists. Since 1951, North Dakota has held elections without a voter-registration list. Historically, registration laws have been used in the United States to prevent people from voting, including African Americans in the Jim Crow South and immigrants in states like New York and California in the early 1900s.

Kraemer learned that a number of industrialized countries—including Canada, France, and Sweden—automatically register their citizens to vote based on information the government already has. Iraq, of all places, used an automatic-registration system for its elections after the US invasion. “It seems like we do a lot of things better than the rest of the world,” Kraemer says, “so why don’t we do voter registration at least as well as the rest of the world?”

In 2009, he pitched the idea of automatic registration to Kate Brown, Oregon’s newly elected secretary of state. Brown had won her first race by just seven votes and shared a passion for expanding voting rights. She wanted to build on Oregon’s history of political innovation (in 1998, it became the first state to conduct its elections entirely by mail, sending a ballot to every registered voter).

“Oregon was really great in terms of voter turnout, because we put ballots in people’s hands,” Brown says. “But we were only slightly above average in terms of voter registration, and we wanted to make it as convenient and accessible as possible.”

She wrote a bill to that end, which failed by one vote in 2013. But Democrats expanded their legislative majorities in the next election, and in 2015 Oregon became the first state to pass an automatic voter-registration law. Brown, who had been sworn in as governor just a month earlier, had the good fortune of signing her own bill.

The system works like this: Any eligible citizen who requests or renews a driver’s license or a state ID card through the DMV is registered to vote. They receive a letter from the state and have 21 days to opt out if they choose not to be registered. They can choose a party affiliation by returning the letter, but if they do nothing, they’re still added to the voter rolls.

The results have been impressive. Since January, more than 230,000 Oregonians have been registered to vote this way, nearly four times as many per month compared with 2012. Oregon is registering 735 new voters a day, roughly half of whom are under 35. Within a few years, 95 percent of Oregonians will be registered to vote, Kraemer predicts, giving Oregon the highest registration rate in the nation. “It is meeting and probably exceeding my expectations,” Brown says.

Republicans unanimously opposed the bill in the legislature, but the people who run the state’s elections love the new system. Steve Druckenmiller has been the clerk of Linn County for 30 years. It’s firmly Republican territory in the heart of the Willamette Valley, dominated by the agriculture, mining, and timber industries. Druckenmiller describes himself as a conservative. In his office, there’s a smiling portrait of Ronald Reagan on the wall and political pins like the one that says “OREAGAN Country.”

Druckenmiller sees automatic registration as a way to remove unnecessary red tape from the process. “We have a fundamental right to vote,” he says. “Assembly, speech, voting—those are fundamental rights. And government should not insert itself between a citizen and that right unless there’s a compelling reason for them to do that.”

Druckenmiller argues that Republicans worried about voter fraud should support the new system, because only people who provide proof of citizenship at the DMV—such as a birth certificate or a passport—are automatically registered. “And I never understood why people who were so concerned about alleged fraud would not support a system that makes it that much more secure,” he says.

Oregon’s law is quickly being replicated nationwide. Similar automatic-registration laws are in the process of being implemented in California, Vermont, West Virginia, and Connecticut. In California alone, 2.4 million new voters could be registered next year. “We’re seeing a sea change, in terms of automatic voter registration becoming how people see that voter registration is supposed to work,” Kraemer says.

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At a time when states like Texas continue to make it harder to vote, Oregon is not just registering a lot of new voters but reframing the national debate over voting rights—treating the franchise as a fundamental right rather than a privilege. “I believe that Americans should be able to access the right to vote simply by virtue of their qualifications: that they’re old enough, that they’re citizens of this country, and that they’re residents of a particular state,” Brown says. “And we shouldn’t require any type of barrier to people accessing that very fundamental right.”

While in Portland, I went to the DMV with Natalie Hawwa, a 34-year-old communications consultant who recently moved from Washington, DC. She needed a new license and had been up all night studying for her driving test. After she passed it and got her license, I told Natalie that she’d also be registered to vote. But she wasn’t convinced, since she hadn’t filled out any additional paperwork.

Two weeks later, a letter from the secretary of state’s office arrived. “It looks like I’m good to go,” Natalie reported. “Registered to vote; everything is in on time. I essentially did nothing but go and get my driver’s license, which I needed anyway, so it’s been pretty awesome.”

If only it were that easy in Texas.