5th Circuit Court upholds Texas election law requiring voter signature

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court finding and affirmed a Texas law that requires an original signature on a voter registration application.

Under the law, with a few exceptions, even if a resident registers to vote electronically or by “fax,” a printed copy of the voter registration application along with the applicant’s original signature must be submitted in order to validate the registration.

Following a slew of extralegal innovations during the 2020 elections, state lawmakers sought to strengthen and clarify Texas Election Code during the 2021 legislative session. One of multiple election integrity bills passed that year was House Bill (HB) 3107, which clarified that applicants registering by “facsimile” must submit a copy of their original registration application “containing the voter’s original signature” within four business days.

Vote.org, a non-profit organization that had created a voter registration app, filed a federal lawsuit against four county election officials alleging that the “original signature” requirement violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments’ prohibitions on imposing undue burdens on the right to vote.

The group also argued that what they called a “wet signature,” as opposed to a digital signature, violated the Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under which voters may not be disqualified on the basis of “errors or omissions” that are “not material” in determining whether that person is qualified to vote.

In June 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Jason Pulliam entered an injunction against enforcement of the signature requirement, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an intervenor in the case, appealed to the 5th Circuit Court and obtained a temporary stay. A three-judge panel heard oral arguments in March 2023 and earlier this month reversed the lower court’s ruling.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent upholding Indiana’s voter identification law, the 5th Circuit noted that a state has the authority to set its electoral rules “so long as they do not constitute invidious discrimination.”

The court also determined that Texas had a substantial interest in voter integrity related to the qualifications to vote, including whether registrants are who they claim to be.

While plaintiffs argued that the state allows digital signatures in other matters, such as when voter registrations are completed through the Department of Public Safety, the court concluded that the state created nondiscriminatory restrictions to “protect the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.”

On a Texas voter registration application, the signature block is placed immediately below statements attesting that the applicant is a resident of the county and a U.S. citizen; has not been convicted of a felony, or if a felon has fully completed their sentence and probation period; and has not been determined to be mentally incapacitated.

The applications also warn that giving false information to procure a voter registration is “perjury and a crime under state and federal law.”

By contrast, the court noted that Vote.org’s electronic application did not include the same warning or specifics of eligibility under state law.

“Though the effect on an applicant of seeing these explanations and warnings above the signature block may not be dramatic, Texas’s justification that an original signature advances voter integrity is legitimate, is far more than tenuous, and under the totality of the circumstances, makes such a signature a material requirement.”

Texas Public Policy Foundation Senior Attorney Autumn Hamit Patterson, who assisted the Office of the Attorney General in defending the law, praised the ruling as the “right result.”

“The Fifth Circuit correctly recognized that states have a substantial interest in election integrity and that an original signature requirement is a legitimate way to advance that interest,” Patterson said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Justice also submitted an amicus brief and participated in the oral arguments on behalf of the plaintiffs.

While upholding Texas’ original signature requirement, the court rejected the state’s argument that Vote.org lacked standing to bring the challenge. In doing so, the 5th Circuit Court joins the 3rd and 11th Circuit courts in allowing private right of action to bring claims under the Materiality Provision.

Vote.org has also filed a federal lawsuit challenging Florida’s original signature requirement.

Earlier this month, the 5th Circuit Court stayed an injunction against implementation of Galveston County’s redrawn commissioner precinct maps, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court pending a hearing before the full appeals court.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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