A minor change in the wording of Texas’ election code could have a major impact on the accuracy of the state’s voter rolls by clarifying that county voter registration officials’ list maintenance activities are mandatory, not optional.
House Bill 3576, authored by House Elections Committee chair State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R–Fort Worth), amends Section 16.033(a) of the election code to read:
“The registrar shall investigate, using any lawful means, whether each registered voter is currently eligible for registration in the county. This section does not require an investigation of eligibility that is based solely on residence.”
Current law says registrars “may” investigate voters’ eligibility.
“Maintaining the list of eligible voters is one of the most important tasks of any voter registrar,” Klick said when introducing her bill in a committee hearing on Monday. “One interpretation of the election code is that voter registrars may do list maintenance on their voter rolls. HB 3576 seeks to clarify the election code to require voter registrars to do list maintenance by changing a ‘may’ to a ‘shall.’”
Data on the number of voters canceled across the state shows not all counties are doing a good job of voter roll maintenance, Klick told the committee. “If list maintenance is occurring as it should across the state, HB 3576 won’t change anything,” she said.
Klick added there is money in the budget to fund the state’s participation in a voter registration crosscheck program that helps identify voters registered in more than one state. “If we are paying for participation in this much-needed program, we should ensure that local voter registrars will use the data to maintain the accuracy of their voter rolls.”
Ed Johnson, who formerly worked in Harris County’s voter registration and elections offices, testified in favor of HB 3576, calling it “a very needed bill.” Johnson said the secretary of state’s office routinely sends county registrars information identifying potentially ineligible people on the voter rolls, but “there’s nothing in the code” that requires county officials to review the matches.
“Some counties just don’t ever look at them,” he said. Johnson suggested adding consequences for registrars who don’t follow the law. Without any penalty in the law, he said, people sometimes tend to ignore it.
Election integrity advocate Alan Vera, who heads the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, said HB 3576 is “clearly a step in the right direction.”
Vera said ongoing interactions with Harris County’s voter registrar created concerns that not enough is being done to maintain the integrity of the county’s voter rolls properly. He requested clarification that the bill does not negate voter registrars’ obligation under a different section of the code to respond to residency challenges filed by other registered voters.
Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis, who heads the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, opposed the bill. Davis said changing “may” to “shall” essentially conveys onto voter registrars the responsibilities of private investigators:
“It is TAEA’s view that the responsibility of investigation—which should occur only in the presence of subsequent contradictory information to what’s been recorded and affirmed on the application—rests with the State of Texas, not Texas counties.”
“We want to be able to act on official information we receive,” he added, “not proactively begin a goose chase or a fishing expedition.”
Davis and a few other witnesses voiced reservations that the bill is overly broad and implies investigations must be done for all registered voters, not just new applicants going forward. Klick said she is working on a committee substitute to clarify the scope of the bill.
Klick added in closing, “Requiring all voter registrars to actively maintain their voter rolls has to be a priority to ensure valid elections across our state.”