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When the tax office began its voter registration push in January, it was prepared for high registration numbers, given that it is a presidential election year.
But then registration flatlined in Travis County for the first time in decades.
Typically, the tax office expects an increase of up to 2,000 registered voters a month leading up to a presidential election. The office saw a net change of zero in April, Elfant said, and only a few hundred May.
"We were stopped in our tracks by COVID-19," Voter Registrar and Tax-Assessor Collector Bruce Elfant said Wednesday.
Although application numbers increased leading up to the July primary election, only 56,255 people registered to vote in Travis County between January and July, compared to nearly 90,000 over the same period in 2016.
A new program
In response, the Travis County Tax Office launched a revamped version of its discontinued Text2Register program, which it hopes will help encourage more people to register to vote.
Texas is one of 10 states that does not allow online voter registration. Residents may request an application online through the Texas Secretary of State but must fill it in by hand and return it by mail. They may also register to vote in person.
The Text2Register program streamlines the remote process by allowing applicants to use their phones and fill out their form in advance, so the application that arrives only needs a date and signature.
County officials said the program removes a major barrier to voter registration for two reasons: 1) It makes the process easier for the voter and 2) it makes the process easier for the voter registrar.
Text2Register initially allowed applicants to request an application, print it out, fill out the form manually and find an envelope and stamp to return it. The program was discontinued in 2016 after one year because more than 75% of users did not return the form by mail, Elfant said.
The new Text2Register program aims to circumvent this issue by mailing the pre-filled form, along with a return envelope, reducing the number of steps needed.
Since it launched, about 300 people have used it to apply, Elfant told Austonia on Friday.
By texting "Register" to 48683 (IVOTE), Travis County residents are prompted to fill out a voter registration form, which the tax office will then mail to them to sign, date and send back to the tax office for review.
The Text2Register program may also help prevent hard-to-read handwriting or discrepancies that lead to failed applications.
"The beauty of this is when the application is received in our office, we already have the data in our system," said Gretchen Nagy, director of voter registration for the county. "We don't have to enter it manually."
During the program's initial run, among those who completed the registration process, more than 80% turned out to vote, Elfant said.
A wider effort
In addition to the Text2Register program, the tax office also moved its volunteer deputy-registrar training online and has made application forms available at libraries and on bookmobiles.
Another concern this year is post office delays.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor whom President Donald Trump appointed in May, launched a reorganization of the U.S. Postal Service in July, which union officials say is the cause of delays.
Elfant cautioned that Travis County voters should not wait until the Oct. 5 deadline to mail in their applications, as many invariably do.
"In any year, we do the admonition about mailing [voter registration applications] early," Elfant said. "This year especially … you don't want to be mailing it anywhere near the deadline."
Clarification: This story has been updated to report that the program, which is run through Travis County, can also be used in other counties and states through a partnership with a larger text-based program. Also, the tax office saw a net change of zero registered voters in April.
Pls RT. News-Travis County offering contactless voter registration. Thanks to partnership with @GoRegister2Vote our… https://t.co/r6iHw7QTNj— Travis County Tax (@Travis County Tax)1597251532.0
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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