Election Set Up

Gregg County Election Administrator Kathryn Nealy puts together the voter check-in area in November 2016 at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. Nealy said obtaining a voter’s signature is an obstacle to making online voter registration possible here.

Texas is inching toward allowing Texans to register to vote online, a move partisans in both major parties welcomed as likely to increase election turnout.

One of 12 states that does not offer online voter registration, Texas was ordered by a federal judge in a National Voter Registration Act trial in the spring to allow voters to register online when they also use that method to renew driver’s licenses.

That online avenue is not yet open, but supporters say it could be the start of wider online voter registration.

“For the time being, online registration is the wave of the future,” Gregg County Democratic Chairman James Cogar said. “And you can see that in the number of states that are using it.”

Cogar said online registration could elevate election day turnout, and he said that is something Republicans do not want.

“There’s nothing mysterious about it,” he said. “It’s really very simple. Anything that increases your turnout usually benefits Democrats, and anything that suppresses turnout benefits Republicans. If you make things easier, that makes it easier for more people to vote. And Republicans don’t want people to vote.”

The Republican chairman of Rusk County disagreed, though he’d heard Cogar’s theory before.

“I know people make that argument, but you go back to the 2018 primary election,” Charlie Williamson said. “There were many more Republican votes than Democrat votes statewide. I don’t know if that argument holds water or not.”

Williamson said many factors affect voter turnout — who is on the ballot, how energized the electorate is, local issues at stake, apathy.

“We have voting-age people in every county in Texas that choose not to be involved in the process that are and are not registered,” he said.

Gregg County Elections Administrator Kathryn Nealy said the state must overcome one obstacle before online voter registration is possible here.

“At this time, the reason that’s not available for new voters to register online is we need your signature,” Nealy said. “That’s my understanding of why we do not have online voter registration at this time.”

Nealy said she didn’t know how other states overcome that signature hurdle.

“But we do know that the state is looking into a method so that voters can register online,” she said.

Nealy also acknowledged the span leading up to the beginning of early voting brings a flood of voter registrations, all handwritten but not all legible. She, like election chiefs across the state, routinely asks her county commissioners court for permission to hire temporary workers to deal with the mountain of applications.

“That’s true,” she said. “We have to reject some because they’re not complete. And our other problem is we cannot read your writing. Quite often, people transpose their driver’s license and Social Security (number). Guess what? If it’s one number off, that’s not you.”

Nealy also said security should not be any more of an issue than it is over online driver’s license renewals.

“If it’s going to be through DPS, I’m sure DPS has security measures in place,” she said. “It wouldn’t be any different from what they have in place now.”

Mary Lou Tevebaugh, a founder of the Democratic Women of East Texas, said online voter registration is not a partisan issue.

“It’s not just a Democrat or Republican thing,” she said. “It’s an American thing.”

She said online voter registration will cut costs to taxpayers. But like Cogar, she was skeptical the Republican-led statehouse will rush to widen the driver’s license renewal avenue for all voters.

“It seems like a no-brainer,” she said. “If you wanted more people participating in the democratic process, and if you’re really confident in your party’s position, why would you not want it?”