Bummer. Totally expected and completely on brand for the Fifth Circuit, but a bummer nonetheless.
A federal appeals court has overturned a previous ruling that could have opened the door to online voter registration in Texas.
In a Wednesday court order, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s ruling that Texas was violating federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses online. The panel of three federal judges that considered the case did not clear the state of wrongdoing but instead determined that the three Texas voters who had brought the lawsuit did not have standing to sue.
The case revolved around a portion of federal law, often called the motor voter law, that was designed to ease the voter registration process by requiring states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.
The legal dispute came after three Texas voters who moved from one county to another were unable to reregister to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses through the state’s online portal. Although the state follows the law for individuals who renew their driver’s licenses in person, Texas does not allow for online voter registration.
Two of the voters who sued the state believed they had registered and didn’t discover they were not on the voter rolls until they tried to vote in 2014. They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but their votes were not counted. The third voter also believed he was registered to vote and only discovered he wasn’t when he sought help from county officials to determine his polling location for a 2015 election.
But the 5th Circuit sided with the state’s argument that the voters could not take the issue on in court because they had since successfully registered to vote and were no longer harmed by the state’s practice.
The federal appeals court found that [District Court Judge Orlando] Garcia erred when he reasoned that court-ordered compliance with federal law was needed to “prevent repetition of the same injury” to the three voters and others because the state’s challengers had not sufficiently proved the online system would continue to be a problem for them in the future.
I have a lot of links for this. The lawsuit in question was filed in 2016, and the initial ruling came two years later. Judge Garcia ordered the state to come up with a fix, which could have led to a partial implementation of online voter registration to comply. (Note how the main opposition to this, in mid-2018, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Elections matter, y’all.) The state said “nah, we’re good, no fixes needed or offered”, appealed the ruling, asked for an emergency stay of the order, which they received, thus putting everything on ice. And now here we are.
The fact that this was overturned on grounds of standing rather than on the merits suggests that maybe another go at this might be successful, if the right plaintiffs can be found. Which is still kind of ridiculous, since the claim wasn’t that people couldn’t get registered at all but that the state wasn’t following federal law and thus made it more of a pain to register and more likely that people would honestly think they had had their registration updated when they hadn’t. One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 election, which sure seems to me to be a legitimate harm for a court to address. I’m not sure what a “correct” plaintiff looks like in this context. Be that as it may, it took over three years to get from the original filing to this ruling, and with no guarantee that a second try would work, or would succeed at SCOTUS even if it got past the Fifth Circuit, this is once again something that’s just gonna have to be solved by winning elections and passing laws, and in this case maybe also installing a DPS director that cares about complying with federal law. I wish it didn’t have to be this hard to secure basic rights and services from our state government, but it is, and we’re the only ones who are going to be able to do something about it. The Texas Signal has more.