Responding to research provided by local citizens, Harris County election officials are starting to verify thousands of questionable voter registration records that list non-residential locations as voting addresses.

Alan Vera, Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee, challenged the registrations of nearly 4,000 voters in the county who are registered to vote at street addresses corresponding to post office box locations. Neither a P.O. Box nor a business address is acceptable as a “residence address” for voter registration purposes.

A team of volunteers looked at the county’s voter rolls and identified records of voters whose registration street addresses matched the known street addresses of U.S. post offices, UPS stores, Mail Boxes Etc., and other providers of postal box services.

Vera delivered the challenges to Harris County Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett on July 30, and state law requires Bennett to confirm the voters’ correct addresses.

Archie Rose, a spokesman for the voter registrar’s office, told Texas Scorecard on Friday a first batch of address confirmation notices had already been sent to some of the challenged voters, and “the last batch was sent today [August 17].”

“The project is completed,” Rose added. The first phase, at least.

Rose, who noted he’d only been in his current position for about a week, said the voter registrar’s office has to follow state statute in responding to voter challenges. Once the required address confirmation notices are mailed, he explained, challenged voters have 30 days to respond or else be placed on suspense.

Voters on the suspense list can still cast a ballot, if they’re otherwise eligible, by simply filling out a statement of residence at the polls confirming their current address. They have two federal election cycles — until November 2020 in these cases, Rose said — to verify their address before the county removes them from the voter rolls. Eligible voters can re-register at any time.

Only county voter registrars may add people to, or remove people from, their local voting rolls.

In addition to their own list maintenance programs, registrars can use information from a variety of outside sources — including the Secretary of State’s office, interstate crosscheck programs, federal databases, and research collected by local citizens — as starting points for identifying ineligible voters on their rolls. Both federal and state laws require county registrars to proactively maintain accurate voter registration lists.

Texas Election Code does not permit local registrars to question the eligibility of registered voters based on residency — but local voters may initiate challenges to the registration of other voters in their county, which registrars are required to act on.

Section 16.033 states a county registrar “may use any lawful means to investigate whether a registered voter is currently eligible for registration in the county,” but it “does not authorize an investigation of eligibility that is based solely on residence.”

Under Section 16.091, however, “a registered voter may challenge the registration of another voter of the same county.” If the challenge is based on residence, “the registrar shall promptly deliver to the voter whose registration is challenged a confirmation notice,” according to Section 16.0921. If the voter fails to respond to the registrar’s notice within 30 days from the date the notice was mailed, “the registrar shall enter the voter’s name on the suspense list.”

According to the timeline laid out by the Harris County registrar’s office, any of the notified voters who have not responded by September 13 — 30 days from the date the registrar’s office told Vera the first batch of notices went out — or by September 17 for the second batch of voters, should then be placed on the county’s suspense list.

But according to one local report critical of the voter roll clean-up effort, the voter registrar’s office may not be following state statute in this process. The Houston Press reported Monday that voter Lynn Lane recently received an address confirmation notice from Bennett — purportedly as a result of Vera’s initiative. The Press’ Jef Rouner said Rose told him he “suspected voter registration challenges were to blame when contacted for comment.”

“Lane subsequently checked his voter registration and found that his voting rights were indeed listed as suspended,” wrote Rouner. If that’s the case, and Lane’s notice was due to a challenge by Vera, then Bennett’s office improperly suspended Lane’s registration prior to the 30-day response period.

Rouner and Lane also assert, incorrectly, that otherwise-eligible suspense voters have “their right to vote jeopardized” and “will not be able to vote in November.” It’s thus unclear who’s in the wrong regarding Lane’s notice, the reporter or the registrar’s office. Texas Scorecard has requested additional information from Bennett’s office.

Bennett is being sued in federal court by the Public Interest Legal Foundation over her refusal to comply with a request for data related to non-citizens registered to vote in Harris County. Bennett and County Attorney Vince Ryan claim state law allows them to hide public records requested under federal transparency provisions of the National Voter Registration Act. The Texas Attorney General’s office says Ryan is wrong and Bennett should disclose the information.

Yet as the Secretary of State Elections Director Keith Ingram told lawmakers at a hearing in February, no state agency oversees county voter registration officials to ensure they’re maintaining accurate voter rolls. It’s up to the general public to monitor their own voting system and “make sure counties are doing their work with regard to voter registration,” Ingram testified.

Texas Scorecard will continue to monitor Bennett and her staff at the Harris County Voter Registrar’s office to ensure they are following the law with regard to transparency and maintaining accurate voter registration rolls.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.