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With new year comes new obstacle to voting in Texas

Texas has among the lowest voting rate in the country. And, starting midnight Wednesday, those looking to change that will face yet another hurdle.
Voters wait in line at a polling place located inside a shopping mall, on Election Day on Nov. 6, 2012, in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)
Voters wait in line at a polling place located inside a shopping mall, on Election Day on Nov. 6, 2012, in Austin, Texas.

Texas has among the lowest rates of voter participation in the country. And, starting midnight Wednesday, those looking to change that will face yet another obstacle.

To register voters in the Lone Star State, you have to be certified by your county—a process that includes attending a training session. And at the start of every odd-numbered year—that is, this Thursday morning—those certifications expire, meaning anyone who wants to continue to do voter registration must go through the time-consuming training process again.

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That requirement, combined with other strict rules governing registration imposed in recent years, adds an enormous hurdle for groups conducting registration drives.

“No other state requires volunteers to jump through these hoops, just to register voters,” said Jenn Brown, the executive director of Battleground Texas, a Democratic group that’s working to register and mobilize new voters in the state. The restrictions, Brown added, “seem designed to keep eligible voters away from the polls.”

To understand just what those hoops are, you have to consider the full range of requirements the state imposes on those simply looking to help their fellow citizens register and vote.

Since the 1980s, Texas has required anyone registering voters be certified as a Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR), and be re-certified every two years. After the passage of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which aimed to make registration easier, many states dropped those certification requirements as inconsistent with the spirit of the federal law. Texas didn’t.

Then in 2011, the state made the process even trickier. First, Republican lawmakers passed new rules barring non-Texas residents from doing voter registration, which made it harder for outside groups to come into the state and run registration drives. They also added a training requirement to the VDR certification process, and imposed criminal penalties for any group that pays registrars. This was the same legislative session in which lawmakers passed the strictest voter ID law in the country—later struck down as a poll tax by a federal judge—as well as a redistricting plan that was found by a court to have intentionally discriminated against Hispanics.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the Secretary of State announced that year that VDRs would now need to be deputized individually in each county for which they were registering voters. That means that if a VDR encounters voters from different counties at the same event, he or she needs to have been certified in each of those counties in order to register them, or faced criminal penalties.

Some counties hold relatively frequent training sessions at convenient hours. But others hold them only once a month, in the middle of the day.  

At a training for registrars run by Hidalgo County in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley and attended by msnbc in April, Battleground volunteers were warned that failing to turn in registration forms within five days was a criminal offense.

“Between the county-by-county requirement and the training requirement, that made the sunset requirement suddenly much more burdensome,” explained Mimi Marziani, a lawyer for Battleground Texas, which says it has around 9,000 VDRs who now will need new training and certification.

Barbara Mason, a Battleground volunteer, is among those who will have to get re-certified—the third time she’ll have had to go through the process since the fall of 2012, even though the rules haven’t changed since then.

“It seems to be that the purpose is to make it more difficult to register voters,” Mason said.

And because the rules especially target organized voter registration drives of the kind conducted by Battleground Texas, they disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. Experts say minorities are more likely than whites to register through registration drives.

Just 28.3% of eligible Texans voted in the November midterms, according to estimates by the respected political scientist Michael McDonald – the second lowest rate in the country. Over 2 million eligible Texas Hispanics were not registered to vote, according to a 2012 report.