Harris County should stop hiding non-citizen voter registration records from the public, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has stated for a second time.
A federal lawsuit against the county for refusing access to the information prompted County Attorney Vince Ryan to sue the AG last month on behalf of Harris County Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett, seeking the state’s permission to keep the voter records hidden.
Last week Paxton’s office responded, asking a state court to “enter a final judgment declaring the information at issue to be subject to disclosure.”
Public Interest Legal Foundation, a law firm dedicated to election integrity, requested access to Harris County’s voter registration records in December under the National Voter Registration Act. Ryan and Bennett — both Democrats — refused, triggering a federal lawsuit filed by PILF on March 29.
“These records are a matter of public interest and should already be accessible,” said PILF President and General Counsel J. Christian Adams. “Many don’t want data about alien registration and voting to see the light of day. Most Americans are on the side of transparency in government.”
Other Texas counties have already provided PILF the requested information. The AG’s office advised Harris County to do the same in a March 15 ruling requested by Ryan in January and now the subject of his lawsuit.
Ryan is attempting to dodge federal transparency requirements by claiming that state law protects Harris County from complying with the NVRA’s public inspection provisions.
Known as the “Motor Voter” law, the NVRA mandates public disclosure of voter registration activities. The federal statute requires election administration officials to make available for public inspection “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 petitioned to intervene in Harris County’s lawsuit, arguing that the state court has no jurisdiction in the case, as access to voter records is being requested under federal inspection rights, not the Texas Public Information Act.
“[I]n order for this Court to have jurisdiction, there must be an actual request for information under the TPIA at issue in the first place,” the petition reads. “No request exists here. The Foundation never made a written request for information under the TPIA.”
Asked why Harris County is withholding public information, Bennett says her office “is committed to protecting our citizens’ right to privacy.”
PILF asserts that the NVRA’s disclosure provision “is not dependent upon state law for its effect or enforcement. Neither is the inspection provision of the NVRA subject to limitations or restrictions through state public information or privacy laws,” according to several court rulings cited.
Bennett also says her office “does not believe there is an issue with non-citizens voting.”
But state and local officials testified at a legislative hearing on election integrity earlier this year that non-citizens are registering and voting in Texas elections. Past Harris County voter registration officials have testified that “hundreds” of non-citizens were discovered in the county’s voter registration system each month.
It’s a violation of both federal and state law for non-citizens to register to vote.
Prosecutors from the Texas Attorney General’s office have also reported 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.”
That’s precisely the problem PILF wants to investigate – and that Harris County is fighting in federal and state court to hide.
PILF spokesman Logan Churchwell says his organization will continue to gather public voter roll information — in federal court, if necessary — and document systemic problems uncovered in the process. Their aim is not only improving the security of registration and voting procedures, but government transparency as well.
“We’re fighting for full inspection rights, not just for ourselves, but if someone wants to come in behind us and ask for something similar … there’ll be precedent there, and they don’t have to do this again.”
Adams adds, “We have a right as voters to know how and when our election systems fail us.”
The only way for the public to know the extent of the problem and formulate solutions is to see the information that Harris County is hiding.