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What’s going on at the Harris County Voter Registrar’s office?

Harris County officials wrongly suspended the registrations of over 1,700 voters whose addresses they’re in the process of verifying, creating a firestorm of confusion and partisan finger-pointing this week. Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett admitted the mistake Wednesday.

Bennett claims it was a software glitch. County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office blames human error. Local Democrats fault Republicans. What really happened?

As Texas Scorecard has reported, Bennett’s office is responding to citizen challenges of nearly 4,000 voter registration records that list non-residential locations as voting addresses. Neither a P.O. Box nor a business address is acceptable as a “residence address” for voter registration purposes

Texas Election Code doesn’t permit local registrars to question the eligibility of registered voters based on residency — but local voters may initiate challenges to the registration residences of other voters in their county. Registrars are then required to follow up by mail and allow voters 30 days to confirm their addresses or be placed on the suspense list (more on this below).

Bennett began drawing fire this week when local media spotlighted one voter who received an address confirmation notice from Bennett. Lynn Lane told the Houston Press and Fox26 on Monday the notice confused him. He then checked his registration online and found it was already suspended.

Texas Scorecard noted this discrepancy on Tuesday; so did Alan Vera, the voter who filed the challenges, in an interview with Fox26. It turns out 1,735 challenged voters were incorrectly place on the suspense list by Bennett’s staff well before the 30-day response period, in violation of the law’s requirements.

Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray acknowledged the mistake, saying Bennett’s staff was “following procedure they believed was the correct procedure, but after they consulted with us, they realized that the correct procedure was to wait 30 days.”

Bennett, however, blamed the mistake on a software glitch. She said the mistake was discovered within a few days and corrected.

The partisan accusations began to fly when Lane suggested Monday the address challenges were directed at Democrat voters in Houston’s Third Ward. Vera is chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee.

Vera, who has been involved locally in election integrity for nearly a decade and is well versed in the state’s election code, says it’s not true any location or party was targeted by his volunteers’ research. They simply looked for registration addresses that were not residential, including postal box providers and other businesses and even vacant lots. Vera maintains the challenges were done countywide and with no consideration of party affiliation. Hundreds of the flagged registration records belong to Republicans, he said.

Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schecter repeated Lane’s claim in an email to supporters Tuesday, alleging Vera’s effort targeted “nearly 4,000 Democratic voters.” Schecter later acknowledged she had no evidence to support her claim, and her email should not be interpreted as a statement of fact, the Houston Chronicle reported. “It is the assumption we’ve gone on, based on the fact it was sent over by Republicans,” Schecter said.

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson responded Wednesday by calling on Bennett to “stop confusing voters and follow the law:”

“Democrat Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett should NOT have jumped the gun by suspending those voters’ registrations. Instead, the law requires her to give them 30 days to respond to a written inquiry about their residence, to ensure they vote in the right jurisdictions.”

The Press also erroneously reported Monday Vera’s initiative had “resulted in some lawfully registered voters in minority neighborhoods seeing their right to vote jeopardized.” Such fear-mongering reflects lack of knowledge about election law and processes. Suspense list procedures are dictated by federal law, the National Voter Registration Act.

Eligible voters on the suspense list can cast a ballot by simply filling out a statement of residence confirming their current address. They have two federal election cycles to verify their address before the county removes them from the voter rolls. The Chronicle says Lane has learned he still is eligible to vote.

The false assumptions by Democrats and media were repeated across Facebook and Twitter. “Andrew W” even sent a threatening tweet with a list of HCRP volunteers’ names and home addresses:

“It’d be a shame if people knew who were on this Orwellian-named “Ballot Security Committee” and their addresses, all per public record.”

“We will not be intimidated” by doxing and threats against Republican volunteers, Simpson added. “We urge Democrat Ann Harris Bennett to follow the law and quit violating voters’ rights.”