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It took me three tries to register to vote — and I’m a voting reporter

My first two registration applications seemingly disappeared. Here’s what I had to do to get on the roll in time for the 2024 primary.

A woman with long dark hair and wearing a bright red dress holds a piece of paper and a small American flag between two banners outside of a tan stone building.
Natalia Contreras poses for a photo holding her naturalization papers after her citizenship ceremony on May 19, 2023, at the US Citizenship and Naturalization Services field office in San Antonio, Texas. (Natalia Contreras / Votebeat)

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S.

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When I started working at Votebeat more than a year ago, I knew little about elections. I wasn’t eligible to vote, and for most of my adult life, the election process was confusing and intimidating. I wanted to learn as much as I could about how elections worked so I would feel empowered to one day participate myself. I wrote an essay about all of this when I started.

After months of writing about election administrators’ jobs, paper ballot security and storage, how primary elections work, election funding (or lack thereof), voting machine logic and accuracy tests, and voter roll maintenance, I now feel like I know more about our elections process than most of those around me.

I love it. And I’m now eligible to cast a ballot.

The process of registering to vote in Texas, however, was harder and more complicated than I expected.

This journey began when I became a naturalized U.S. citizen at a ceremony in May, having lived more than 20 years in the United States. After taking the oath of allegiance with around 50 others, volunteer deputy voter registrars from Bexar, Travis, Hays, and other Central Texas counties were waiting with voter registration applications.

I was 100% ready. I worked very hard for this moment, and I knew exactly what to do. It felt great to fill out that voter registration form.

The volunteer who took my application told me I would receive a voter registration card in the mail. It never arrived. A few months later, I checked my voter registration status on the Texas secretary of state’s website and nothing showed up. When I called the county’s voter registrar, they confirmed I wasn’t in the system.

But I knew I was moving to a different county soon, and decided to wait and register there. I figured I could easily register to vote at the local Texas Department of Public Safety office while also updating my address and driver’s license. I checked all the right boxes and I verified my information to make sure I had selected the option to register to vote. I asked the clerk at the counter to double-check, and he told me that he did.

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I wanted to be sure because time was getting tighter. I knew that if I were to arrive at the polls on Election Day and find my information wasn’t in the system, I would need to vote using a provisional ballot and risk it going uncounted.

After a few weeks, I received my new driver’s license in the mail. But I was still not registered to vote. The deadline to register was getting closer. I called my county’s voter registrar’s office. The clerk on the phone said she was not sure what went wrong.

That’s when my journalistic curiosity took over. I started calling my sources to ask why someone’s voter registration applications would be landing in the void.

They told me the first application — the one I filled out right outside of my naturalization ceremony — could have gotten lost on the way. It was possible a deputy voter registrar never turned it into the county —though that’s a criminal offense. There’s also a possibility that my application is still sitting on someone’s desk at the county voter registrars’ office.

In other states, these problems aren’t as common. For example, in states with online voter registration — all except around eight states, though two more are in the process of implementing it — volunteers aren’t as necessary for registration, and no voter applications get lost in the mail or on a messy desk. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, though, has blocked online voter registration for years with no explanation.

And until Texas does implement online voter registration, election officials say that anyone registering via a volunteer deputy registrar should receive a receipt with the date they registered and the volunteer deputy registrar’s ID. It’s important to hold on to that. If you show up to the polls and they tell you you’re not registered to vote, with that receipt in hand, you could still vote provisionally. “If need be we can call that VDR and say, ‘Hey what’s the problem here? Why don’t we have that application?’” Chris Davis, the voter registration division director in Travis County, told me.

I remember getting that receipt when I first registered outside of my naturalization ceremony. But at the time, I did not know how important it was, or that I might need it later. I misplaced it when I moved.

As for my second attempt, there’s a chance the DPS clerk made a mistake. Even when someone selects the option to register to vote on their form, the clerk still must manually select that option in the computer system in order for the data to be sent to the county. There also could have been errors in the process of transferring the data between agencies, or my information might have made it to the county registrar’s office and simply not been entered on time — a risk because the computer systems don’t talk to each other directly.

It was less than a week before the voter registration deadline, and I had to try again.

I filled out my third voter registration application. I went to drop it off in person at the voter registrar’s office.

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This time, it worked.

But I am still thinking about how not everyone has the ability, the time, or the resources to ask questions, double-check their registration status, and make multiple attempts.

Being able to participate in democracy should not be this hard.

I want to hear about your experience registering to vote in Texas. Did you have trouble? Did it go smoothly? Email me at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune.

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