Harris County lost another attempt to keep hiding noncitizen voter roll data from the public.
A federal judge has denied the county’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Public Interest Legal Foundation, a law firm dedicated entirely to election integrity. The foundation sued Harris County Voter Registrar Ann Bennett last year under a transparency provision of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), after Bennett’s office refused a request for access to voter records.
Section 8 of the NVRA, also known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires voter registration officials to let the public see “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.”
PILF requested access to records of registered voters identified through various sources as noncitizens, as well as any actions taken by the county regarding those registrations.
Bennett, a Democrat who is also the county’s elected tax assessor-collector, has been fighting PILF’s public information request in both federal and state courts, following the advice of County Attorney Vince Ryan, also an elected Democrat.
County officials requested an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking permission to hide the voter data, citing the state’s public information laws – even though the records were requested under federal law, not the Texas Public Information Act. After receiving an unfavorable opinion, Ryan then sued the AG’s office and was again advised by the state that the county should disclose the requested information.
The county’s motion to dismiss was Bennett’s latest attempt to avoid federal transparency requirements and continue hiding noncitizen voter data from the public.
In addition to fighting federal disclosure laws, Bennett has claimed she’s under no obligation to remove noncitizens from Harris County’s voter rolls. In a court filing Bennett said the NVRA “does not create any obligation for a state to conduct a list maintenance program to remove the names of voters who may be ineligible due to lack of citizenship.”
This case is unrelated to the recent revelation by the Texas Secretary of State that tens of thousands of registered voters were identified as noncitizens in Texas Department of Public Safety database. A large number of those voters’ citizenship status remains unverified, as does that of voters who have no corresponding DPS record. Under current law, no one verifies the citizenship of people registering to vote.
Harris County’s loss means the transparency case will proceed in federal court.
“The facts in this case are clear-cut,” PILF Communications Director Logan Churchwell said in a statement last year. “Harris County officials are wasting taxpayer resources by trying to flaunt federal law by keeping the public in the dark about how voter rolls are maintained.”
Other Texas counties have complied with PILF’s requests for noncitizen voter data. How long will Harris County continue to hide?
Ann Harris Bennett
Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar