Analysis: If it was easier to vote in Texas, would turnout still be this low?

🕐 3 min read

by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune.

 You call a popular, busy restaurant to make a reservation. They tell you they only take reservations from 5 to 6 p.m. You make a note to call back. When you do, the line is busy and you can’t get through.

They didn’t prevent you from dining there. They just made it too hard. It’s easy to see that they’re going to lose some customers, but maybe it doesn’t matter — maybe they’re so busy and profitable that they can afford to make things inconvenient.

Now imagine letting the managers of that restaurant run your elections.

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That’s how the state’s new election laws make it harder to vote. Republicans pushing the new law said they were trying to make sure elections in Texas are more secure — harder to cheat. But numerous investigations have failed to produce more than a smattering of fraud in Texas elections, and none large enough to change election outcomes.

In the process of addressing a problem they cannot prove exists, they’ve created friction where it’s not needed, inventing new hassles instead of knocking down existing obstacles.

If state lawmakers wanted everybody to vote, they’d make it easy for everybody to vote. You would be able to register online, like voters in 42 states and the District of Columbia are allowed to do, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas lets you fill out the form online, then print it out, sign it, put it in a stamped envelope and mail it in. State of the art, circa 1992.

Twenty states allow voters to register at the same time they go vote. Two more allow it only during early voting, and one more — Virginia — will have a new same-day registration law in force later this year.

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In 23 states, all voters are allowed to vote by mail, at least in some elections. In eight states, that applies to all elections, and two more states leave the option to county officials. Nine states allow universal voting by mail in small elections, and four allow it in specific small jurisdictions.

Voting by mail was a particular concern of Texas lawmakers during last year’s legislative sessions. In 2020, Harris County officials sent vote-by-mail applications to all registered voters, offering them a chance to vote remotely during the height of the pandemic. It’s now illegal for government officials to mail those applications, except when voters request them.

What’s more, the forms have been redesigned and made somewhat more complicated, a regular complaint from Texas voters in both the Democratic and Republican primaries this year.

Lawmakers knocked down other voter-friendly ideas from earlier elections, like 24/7 voting that let people vote around the clock during the state’s early voting period, and drive-thru voting that made casting a ballot as easy as picking up a burger and a shake.

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Turnout in this month’s primaries stunk: 82.5% of the state’s registered voters did not show up for either the Democratic or Republican primary. You can’t blame complex and punitive voting laws for the evident apathy in those numbers. But the laws don’t help. These are registered voters who aren’t voting — not eligible adults who aren’t even engaged enough to register.

A restaurant or any other business that wasn’t reaching more than 4 out of 5 people who’d shown that level of interest would be eliminating obstacles to make things attractive and simple for customers.

But elected officials in Texas don’t run the state like a business — and they don’t award state employees who do that, either. Particularly when it comes to the inefficient and byzantine election system that puts them in office and keeps them there.

They’ve solved the politics. The result is a problem for the rest of us.

Disclosure: The National Conference of State Legislatures has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism.

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