Harris County officials are dodging a federal transparency law regarding voter registration records – and they’re trying to hide behind state laws to justify it.
County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office is continuing to assert that the Texas Public Information Act and other state statutes exempt Harris County’s voter list maintenance records from federal public inspection requirements, despite facing a federal lawsuit demanding access to the records.
Public Interest Legal Foundation, a law firm dedicated to election integrity, sued Harris County Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett in federal court last week for failing to disclose voter registration records as required by the National Voter Registration Act.
The NVRA, also known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires local election officials to maintain accurate voter registration lists and to allow public inspection of all records relating to list maintenance programs.
Harris County is denying PILF’s request to inspect records – a violation of the NVRA.
Robert Soard, who works under Ryan at the County Attorney’s Office, said the county believes it does not have to disclose the records under state law.
But state law doesn’t apply.
“The public are entitled to publicly inspect election officials’ records relating to voter registration activities,” PILF’s local counsel Andy Taylor told Fox 26 Houston.
“Vince Ryan has blinded himself to the fact that federal law trumps state law,” Taylor said. “This isn’t a state law question.”
PILF explained that to the county attorney’s office multiple times, even stating in bold letters in their January 18 NVRA Violation Notice, “Our request is not a request pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act:”
“In our initial request for inspection, and again in our letter of clarification dated December 18, 2017, we explained that our request is made pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Section 20507(i) of the NVRA requires your office to make available for inspection and photocopying ‘all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.’
“Despite that unequivocal clarification regarding the basis for our request, your letter continues to treat our request as if it were made pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act, rather than the NVRA. … The state-law exemptions cited in your letter are not applicable to our request.”
The county repeatedly used state law as an excuse to hide records of non-citizens who registered to vote and were later removed from the voter rolls after the county discovered they weren’t citizens.
It’s a violation of both federal and state law for non-citizens to register to vote.
Soard also said the county believes “the system is in place to prevent non-citizens from being able to vote.”
Whether that’s the case is what a review of the county’s records is intended to show.
“When you’re counting votes, everybody has a vested interest in making sure that the election count and outcome is correct; otherwise democracy is turned on its ear, and that’s why we filed this lawsuit,” Taylor said.
There’s no doubt that non-citizens are registering and voting in Texas. State and local officials testified to that fact at a legislative hearing in February. And Harris County’s previous Voter Registrar Mike Sullivan testified in a 2015 hearing that his office found “hundreds” of non-citizens on the county’s voter rolls every month.
The Texas Attorney General’s office also reported finding that “the process for removing ineligible voters who self-report as non-citizens at jury duty is not being followed correctly, or even at all, in various counties.” Yet no state agency has oversight authority over county registrars to ensure they comply with the law – that’s left to “the general public” and groups like PILF, the head of the Texas Secretary of State’s Elections Division testified.
The question is not if, but how many aliens are getting onto Texas rolls, and voting. The only way to find out is to look.
“Harris County cannot expect to get away with avoiding its federal transparency responsibilities,” PILF President and General Counsel J. Christian Adams said in a statement.
Other Texas counties have complied with PILF’s request for records. Documents obtained from Hidalgo County revealed a resident who voted in nine local, state, and federal elections – including four Democrat primaries – before the county discovered through a jury recusal that he wasn’t a citizen and removed him from the voter rolls.
Harris County should follow Hidalgo’s example. In fact, they must – even under state law, according to the opinion that Ryan solicited from the AG.
“Harris’ absolute refusal to share data sets a damaging precedent where voting rights are concerned,” PILF spokesman Logan Churchwell told Texas Scorecard. “Your voting rights consist of more than registering and voting. You also have a right to ask tough questions of your officials and expect thorough, documented responses.”
PILF has successfully sued counties in Texas and other states for failing to comply with the NVRA, and is currently litigating a case against Starr County, Texas, where officials admit non-citizens have registered and voted. The Indiana-based foundation has also discovered non-citizens registering and voting in multiple states including Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
“Every vote counts and matters in the outcome of these elections, and so we can’t turn a blind eye to this situation and say, ‘It really doesn’t matter,’” said Taylor. “It matters a lot.”