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By Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff
When Jarrod Stringer updated his driver's license address in 2014, the Texas Department of Public Safety website asked if he wanted to register to vote. He clicked yes and thought he was registered. That fall, when he went to vote in San Antonio, he was denied. According to the system, he had never registered. It was past the registration deadline, so he couldn't vote.
That kicked off a six-year legal battle that included two lawsuits for the right for Texans to register to vote online while updating their licenses.
"It's traumatic when you can't vote," Stringer said. "It's implicitly saying, 'You don't have a voice. You can't participate in change.'"
On Wednesday, Stringer won that "mind-boggling" fight with the state of Texas two weeks before the deadline to register to vote in 2020. Acting on a federal judge's orders, the state updated its online systems to allow people to add their names to the voter rolls when they update their licenses.
While it's a limited step — the online option is still only available to people updating their licenses — the change marks the first time Texans have been able to register to vote online, which advocates say could significantly increase turnout both this year and for future elections.
Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which brought forward the lawsuits, said the change specifically helps marginalized Texans, who most often move.
"This is absolutely a victory for voting rights for all Texans," Marziani said. "It's a particular victory for younger Texans, poorer Texans and Texans of color."
The National Voter Registration Act, known as the motor voter law, requires states to let residents complete their voter registration applications when they apply for or renew their driver's licenses. Marziani said she took up the case because Stringer had been denied that right.
Previously, Texans like Stringer who tried to register while using the state's online license portal were directed to a blank registration form they had to fill out, print and send to their county registrar. The state was forced to change that system after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled last month that DPS is "legally obligated" to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application. Garcia had ordered the state to set up a "fully operable" online system by Wednesday.
"The Secretary of State and Texas Department of Public Safety are in compliance with the court's order," said Kayleigh Date, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, in a statement.
According to Marziani, 1.9 million Texans use the Department of Public Safety's online portal to update their driving information each year, and 96% of eligible Texans have their driver's licenses. Texas drivers can renew their licenses online if they renewed them in person the previous time, they are older than 18 but younger than 79, and their licenses expire within two years or have been expired for less than two years, among other restrictions. Texas has more than 16.6 million registered voters.
The coronavirus has brought widespread concern about how people can vote safely in Texas this November, especially as the state's elected leaders have resisted the idea of broadening who is eligible to vote by mail. Campaigns and advocates from both parties have found that registering new voters has been a challenge without online voting. Forty-one states have passed legislation to allow residents to register to vote online; Texas is not one of them.
Marziani said Wednesday's move shows the state has the infrastructure in place to expand online voting beyond DPS and renewing driver's licenses.
"The system they use is the exact same system that they would implement for a broader online voter registration," Marziani said. "This is a flashing green light for the Legislature to finally bring Texas in line with states across the country and pass online voter registration."
Date did not answer questions about whether this would be possible or whether the state expected to expand online voter registration.
While some state leaders have staunchly opposed any form of online registration, Garcia's ruling last month said online registration would actually bolster security and election integrity.
"Uncontested expert testimony shows that a compliant DPS system would very likely lead to great efficiency, less human error, a massive saving in costs, and increased voter registration," Garcia wrote.
For Stringer, who moved again in August and waited to update his license until Wednesday, the action by the state was a relief.
"The representation of the people in the state of Texas is more fair today than it was two weeks ago," he said. "Part of what it means to be a citizen is to vote without duress. It's a huge deal."
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
More on the election:
Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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