Handing the state another voting rights loss, a federal judge has sided with a civil rights group that claimed Texas violated federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their drivers’ license information online.
In a court order made public on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio ruled that Texas was in violation of the federal National Voter Registration Act. A portion of that law requires states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Garcia will direct the state to comply with the law; Garcia indicated he will provide more details in the next two weeks. But the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents several Texas voters in the case, said the state would “soon be forced” to change its voter registration policies — and possibly introduce its first mechanism for online voter registration.
“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,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We look forward to seeing deep changes in [the Texas Department of Public Safety’s] voter registration practices in the coming months, affecting well over a million Texans every year.”
The Texas Attorney General's Office, which fought the case on behalf of DPS, pledged Wednesday to appeal the decision.
"We are not surprised by the order issued on Tuesday by this particular judge," spokesman Marc Rylander said. "The Fifth Circuit will not give merit to such judicial activism because Texas voter registration is consistent with federal voter laws."
The voter registration lawsuit was filed in 2016 against the Texas secretary of state and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Alleging that Texas was disenfranchising thousands of voters, the plaintiffs also claimed that Texas was violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.
DPS followed the law for in-person voter registration, but residents trying to register online ran into convoluted and misleading language, the plaintiffs claimed.
Plaintiffs objected to what they called a misleading process on the agency’s website. When users checked “yes” to a prompt that said “I want to register to vote,” they were directed to a registration form that they had to print out and send to their county registrar.
Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” that language has caused “widespread confusion” among Texans who incorrectly thought their voting registration had been updated, the plaintiffs claimed.
Texas does not currently allow for any online voter registration. If the judge compels the state to begin allowing Texans to register to vote when conducting driver’s license business online, that narrow method would be the first and only way in which Texans could do so online.
Lawyers for the AG argued that the state's practices complied with federal law, but they were unsuccessful in their attempt to convince Garcia to dismiss the case.
It’s not yet clear when Texas would have to change its policies. The Texas Civil Rights Project asked the court to give Texas a 90-day timeline, which would mean any new measures would go into effect before the October registration deadline for this fall’s general election.
Last February, Garcia sanctioned Texas for dragging its feet on the case, citing a months-long delay in turning over thousands of pages of documents related to the lawsuit. The state attorney general’s office’s delays, he wrote, have been “disruptive, time-consuming, cost consuming” and burdened the plaintiffs. The state was ordered to pay some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees.