State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr. says it’s time to bring Texas election laws into the 21st century.
In an era where iPads and tablets are used by some more than pen and paper, Texans should be able to use electronic devices to ask for mail-in ballots — and have their electronic signatures legally recognized, he said.
“People sign electronically every day for everything from paying at stores or renting cars,” said Romero, D-Fort Worth, who filed House Bill 1632. “The election code should be made expressly clear that signing a tablet is the same as signing a piece of paper.”
This issue was at the heart of a lawsuit last year filed by then-state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who lost his re-election bid to Romero by 111 votes.
Burnam said he filed the lawsuit to review data from the Texas House District 90 election to determine if there were hundreds of ballots cast through “an illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation.”
After months of legal maneuvering — including sending the case to the Texas Supreme Court, which declined to hear it — Burnam dropped the lawsuit.
Burnam said Romero’s bill is a bad idea and he plans to testify against it.
“People cannot verify who actually did the signature,” said Burnam, now a senior legislative liaison for Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. “I think this is a horrible precedent.”
When Burnam’s lawsuit was in the courts last year, political observers said the state’s Election Code only addresses electronic signatures at polling places, such as when voters cast their ballot during early voting or on Election Day.
“My bill is to clarify the issue of electronic signatures and the ability to capture that on a tablet,” Romero said. “The bill modernizes and clarifies the election code to make it expressly legal.
“All it means is you don’t have to use a pen,” he said. “You can use your finger. A tablet that will recognize your finger or a stylus — that’s the same as a signature in ink.”
This could help campaign canvassers who go door-to-door working to encourage voters to cast their votes in person or by mail, he said.
This bill “would help bring Texas election law closer in-line with the new digital reality, where, with every passing year, Texans complete more and more forms electronically and fewer and fewer forms on paper,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
“Allowing voters to complete applications to vote by mail on an electronic device is a welcome update, since while the use of such devices certainly falls within the spirit of the current legislation, HB-1632 would remove any doubts whatsoever on this matter and avoid future lawsuits similar to that filed by former Rep. Burnam in 2014.”
Jones said Romero’s proposal would help update the state’s elections laws. But he’s not sure it goes far enough.
“Ideally the electronic application could be electronically delivered to the early voting clerk rather than printed and then submitted by hand/mail,” Jones said. “However, given the tremendous digital disparities which exist across the 254 Texas counties, Rep. Romero’s approach is the prudent one at the present time since many county early voting clerks are not well-equipped to securely receive, process and archive electronic applications.”
Burnam’s lawsuit last year noted that nearly 1,000 of the 5,078 votes cast in his race were absentee mail-in ballots. He believed they could have been a deciding factor. Court documents showed that Burnam believed that iPads and other tablets were used illegally to submit many vote-by-mail applications.
State District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton turned down Burnam’s request that Tarrant County elections officials release the applications received for mail-in ballots in the District 90 race. Texas’ 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth and the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Burnam said he hasn’t yet read Romero’s bill. But friends have mentioned it to him.
“It’s fraught with the possibility of fraud,” he said. “That is exactly what we were contending last year.”
Romero said he wants to clarify one point.
“My campaign did not use tablets at all in the election,” he said. “But another campaign apparently did. It provided an excuse for my opponent to try to challenge the election results, which he did unsuccessfully.”
Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610