A federal judge has sided with a civil rights group that accused Texas officials of violating U.S. law by failing to automatically register voters who go online to obtain or renew a driver’s license.
The one-page order by U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio — who said a full opinion explaining his reasoning will be released within two weeks — means Texas will be forced to change its online registration to comply with the “motor-voter” provisions of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, said Beth Stevens with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“For too long, the state of Texas has ignored federal voting rights laws intended to ensure that all eligible voters have an opportunity to register to vote. Even worse, because of these failures, countless Texans have been prevented from casting a ballot that counts, thereby unlawfully shutting people out of our democratic process,” Stevens said.
The ruling could affect almost 1.5 million Texans who renew their driver’s licenses online annually, court records show.
The Texas Civil Rights Project filed suit in 2016 on behalf of four Texans who said they were denied the opportunity to cast a ballot because their voter registration had not been updated.
The lawsuit argued that every time a Texan renews, updates or obtains a driver’s license, the motor-voter law requires the Department of Public Safety to offer to register that person to vote or — for voters already registered — to update registration records to reflect a change of address.
Drivers who conduct business at a DPS office are offered full voter registration services.
Visitors to the DPS website, however, are directed to a separate web page to download a voter registration form, print it out and mail it to their county registrar, whose address is not listed, according to the lawsuit.
The state policy means online visitors are treated differently in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantee and the federal motor-voter law, which was intended to increase voter participation by streamlining the registration process, the lawsuit argued.
In his ruling, Garcia granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the civil rights group, which said DPS sought to justify the extra steps by arguing that online customers cannot sign a driver’s license form, which the state agency said was necessary to “later check against the poll book.” Texas, however, does not use handwritten signatures for voter registration or voter verification, the motion argued.