Voters in Harris County are being disenfranchised because the county’s voter registrar is not following proper procedure, State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston) said in a press conference today announcing a recent Texas Secretary of State opinion on the matter.

“This opinion that you see here from the Secretary of State’s office addresses directly whether or not my constituent and citizen watchdog Al Vera’s challenge was appropriate when he challenged whether or not voters could register at basically a commercial address,” Bettencourt said.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart and Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Chairman Alan Vera joined Bettencourt to announce the Secretary of State had issued an opinion supporting Vera’s challenge to a number of Harris County voter registrations. The Secretary also affirmed the requirement for the county voter registrar to confirm the addresses of the challenged voters.

In August, Vera challenged the registrations of 4,000 voters in Harris County who were registered at non-residential addresses. As Texas Scorecard has previously reported, Section 16 of the Texas Election Code allows any registered voter in a given county to challenge the registration of another voter in that same county. Yet County Attorney Vince Ryan advised Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett to deny the challenges because Vera did not have “personal knowledge” that the voters were ineligible.

“I filed a very simple voter registration residency challenge with the Harris County Voter Registrar in full compliance with Texas Election Code,” Vera said. “This should have been a very simple administrative process within the registrar’s system as clearly laid out, step-by-step, in the election code.”

“Instead, the process spelled out in the law was mishandled at least three times by the Voter Registrar and was further complicated by the County Attorney,” Vera added. “Essentially the County Attorney told the registrar that she could ignore the Texas Election Code. I knew at that time that both the County Attorney and the registrar were dead wrong.”

In his opinion dated October 10, Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos affirmed that “personal knowledge” can include “knowing from experience and observation that those addresses are commercial properties or other properties that are not generally ‘residences.’” Vera’s challenges were based on his research cross-checking registration addresses with those of P.O. boxes and other non-residential addresses.

“This challenge that Al Vera has submitted was proper, the actions that the department took were improper, the advice they got from the County Attorney was incorrect, and we have to have a voter roll that functions in Harris County,” said Bettencourt. “We cannot conduct an election in the charged atmosphere of 2018 without a voter roll that the public believes in its integrity.”

The opinion also says Bennett has no discretion deciding whether or not to send confirmation notices to voters who have had their registration challenged. The law states “the voter registrar shall promptly deliver to the challenged voter a confirmation notice in accordance with Sections 16.0921 and 15.051 of the Code, even if such delivery occurs less than 75 days before the general election.” Since Bennett shirked her responsibility of confirming the challenged registrations, ineligible voters may very well cast ballots in the upcoming midterm elections.

Bettencourt also noted the county is using taxpayer money to defend Bennett’s decision, again following Ryan’s advice, to not release information from the jury wheel exchanged between the District Clerk’s office and the Tax Office for over 15 years that identifies possible non-citizens on the voter rolls.

Bennett’s office is being sued in federal court for refusing to comply with federal law in a case pertaining to non-citizens registered to vote in Harris County. Under federal law, the public is permitted to inspect voter roll maintenance records. Bennett and Ryan have argued that state law allows them to conceal the public records despite an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton saying otherwise.

The opinion from the Secretary of State disproves the allegations leveled by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–Houston), State Sen. Borris Miles (D–Houston), and others who claimed Vera’s sole intention was to disenfranchise voters and that he had no jurisdiction to challenge the registrations to begin with.

Bettencourt’s office sent a letter to Bennett today with a copy of the opinion, though it has been public for two weeks.

“The Texas Secretary of State issued its first Election Law Opinion since 2013 to address procedural mistakes made by your office, the Harris County Voter Registration Department and the County Attorney’s Office,” reads the letter.

If Bennett fails to respond, Bettencourt said he will take action, partly in the form of additional legislation. He also said the challenges will come back again, and he hopes Bennett would handle them correctly the second time around. “We have law, and fact, and precedence, and procedures that have been in place for at least a decade and a half in the state, and they need to be followed.”

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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