Texas law bars voter reg­is­trars from prob­ing ad­dresses

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Zach Des­part STAFF WRITER

The de­bate in Har­ris County over a res­i­dent’s chal­lenge to 4,000 voter reg­is­tra­tions ended with the county at­tor­ney declar­ing the claim in­valid, but drew at­ten­tion to a quirk in Texas law that bars voter reg­is­trars from in­ves­ti­gat­ing what they sus­pect are bo­gus ad­dresses.

Res­i­dents of a county are per­mit­ted to chal­lenge the voter reg­is­tra­tion of other county res­i­dents if they have “per­sonal knowl­edge” a voter has listed an in­cor­rect ad­dress. The Har­ris County at­tor­ney con­cluded lo­cal Repub­li­can Party of­fi­cial Alan Vera could not pos­si­bly know where 4,000 vot­ers lived, and re­jected the chal­lenges.

Vera’s list, how­ever, in­cluded thou­sands of vot­ers who listed their res­i­dences at busi­ness ad­dresses, such as par­cel stores and post of­fices, rais­ing ques­tions about how those ap­pli­ca­tions were ap­proved, and what Har­ris County can do to cor­rect them.

Texas law re­quires vot­ers to reg­is­ter where they live. At the same time, state law re­quires coun­ties to take vot­ers at their word that their voter reg­is­tra­tion ap­pli­ca­tions are truth­ful.

Reg­is­trars who sus­pect an ad­dress may be in­valid can send let­ters to vot­ers ask­ing them to con­firm where the live. If res­i­dents re-sub­mit the same ad­dress, how­ever, reg­is­trars must process the ap­pli­ca­tion. Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas sec­re­tary of state, said the only other rem­edy reg­is­trars have is to re­fer cases to dis­trict at­tor­neys for pros­e­cu­tion.

“The Texas Elec­tion Code does not grant any sort of ad­di­tional in­ves­tiga­tive au­thor­ity to a voter regis­trar in that situation,” Taylor said. “That’s where in­ves­ti­ga­tors and/or law en­force­ment get in-

volved.”

Taylor said the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice has re­ceived com­plaints about the is­sue in the past but said in­stances in which vot­ers in­sist they live at an ad­dress that ap­pears com­mer­cial are not a wide­spread prob­lem.

“It does oc­cur oc­ca­sion­ally, and we do oc­ca­sion­ally hear frus­tra­tions from county voter reg­is­trars,” Taylor said.

Bun­gled re­sponse

The Texas Elec­tion Code de­fines a voter’s res­i­dence ad­dress as the street ad­dress or the ad­dress at which mail is re­ceived if the res­i­dence has no ad­dress, along with the city, state and zip code. A voter regis­trar must reg­is­ter a per­son if the ap­pli­ca­tion is com­plete and the per­son oth­er­wise is el­i­gi­ble, pro­vided the regis­trar can de­ter­mine the ad­dress claimed and as­sign it to the proper vot­ing precinct.

The regis­trar can re­fer cases to the dis­trict at­tor­ney if he or she be­lieves an ap­pli­cant is falsely claim­ing a busi­ness ad­dress as a res­i­dence ad­dress.

David Becker, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Elec­tion In­no­va­tion and Re­search in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., said it is com­mon for dis­trict at­tor­neys to serve as the regis­trar’s only op­tion for bring­ing charges.

Elec­tion of­fi­cials, he said, should re­serve re­fer­rals to the DA for cases when “it looks like there’s a po­ten­tial crim­i­nal ac­tion.”

Har­ris County Tax Asses­sor Ann Har­ris Ben­nett, who also is the county’s voter regis­trar, de­clined in­ter­view re­quests but said in an email that her of­fice checks sev­eral data­bases, such as those main­tained by the De­part­ment of Pub­lic Safety and Har­ris County Ap­praisal Dis­trict, to ver­ify voter ad­dresses.

In Au­gust, her of­fice ini­tially bun­gled its re­sponse to the 4,000 reg­is­tra­tion chal­lenges by plac­ing 1,700 vot­ers on its sus­pense list but cor­rected the er­ror within days.

Voter reg­is­trars in other large Texas coun­ties de­scribed a sys­tem in which clerks run voter reg­is­tra­tions through a data­base that marks ad­dresses that ap­pear to be com­mer­cial.

Bexar County Elec­tions Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jac­que­lyn Cal­la­nen said her of­fice sends ad­dress con­fir­ma­tion cards to regis­trants whose ap­pli­ca­tions are flagged.

“If it does not come back, we mark their record as a sus­pense record,” Cal­la­nen said. “So, when they go to the polls, they have the op­por­tu­nity to give a res­i­den­tial ad­dress but are still el­i­gi­ble to vote.”

Vot­ers only are purged from the rolls if they are placed on the sus­pense list and fail to par­tic­i­pate in two con­sec­u­tive fed­eral elec­tions, Cal­la­nen said — a process that takes four years.

John Old­ham, the elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor in Fort Bend County, de­scribed a sim­i­lar process in which that county’s clerks use a data­base to ver­ify ad­dresses. Texas has a statewide voter reg­is­tra­tion data­base, called TEAM. Some of the state’s most pop­u­lous coun­ties main­tain their own lo­cal data­bases as well.

Old­ham said reg­is­tra­tion ap­pli­ca­tions on which vot­ers list the phys­i­cal ad­dress of a post of­fice or P.O. box some­times “slip through the cracks” but said clerks seek to en­sure vot­ers list the ad­dress at which they live.

“We nor­mally ini­tially re­ject ap­pli­ca­tions that have a com­mer­cial ad­dress,” Old­ham said. “But if they re­sub­mit with the very same in­for­ma­tion … we send a let­ter to con­firm.”

Old­ham added that his of­fice never has re­ferred a sus­pected fraud­u­lent voter reg­is­tra­tion to the Fort Bend County dis­trict at­tor­ney.

Con­fir­ma­tion let­ters

The Chron­i­cle re­ported last month that Ben­nett’s of­fice mailed let­ters to vot­ers whose reg­is­tra­tions were chal­lenged and asked them to con­firm their ad­dresses. The vot­ers were not given the req­ui­site 30 days to re­spond.

Becker said fed­eral law fur­ther man­dates that of­fi­cials com­plete their voter list main­te­nance 90 days be­fore an elec­tion; in this case, Ben­nett’s of­fice was op­er­at­ing within the 90day win­dow.

In­stead of mail­ing the let­ters or putting vot­ers on her of­fice’s sus­pense list, Becker said that Ben­nett could have kept a record of those named in Vera’s chal­lenge, then checked af­ter the elec­tion to see which of them voted.

Becker said it’s likely more peo­ple placed on the sus­pense list were el­i­gi­ble and would like to vote than were in­el­i­gi­ble and at­tempt­ing to il­le­gally cast a bal­lot.

“It’s hard to get peo­ple to vote. It’s re­ally hard to get peo­ple to break the law to vote,” he said.

Galve­ston County Tax Asses­sor-Col­lec­tor Ch­eryl John­son says she does not per­mit voter reg­is­tra­tions to list the ad­dresses of P.O. boxes on voter reg­is­tra­tion forms.

She said her of­fice has seen many cases of res­i­dents who live on boats list­ing par­cel stores as their home. John­son sends let­ters ask­ing th­ese vot­ers to in­stead list the near­est in­ter­sec­tion or pier, to en­sure they are reg­is­tered to vote in the cor­rect precinct.

John­son’s two full-time clerks vet each ap­pli­ca­tion man­u­ally and work with vot­ers to en­sure their ad­dresses are valid, she said.

“I don’t think it’s ever a voter try­ing to scam the sys­tem,” John­son said. “They just don’t know what to do.”

Otis Evbagharu, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Har­ris County Demo­cratic Party, said the party has yet to re­ceive com­plaints from mem­bers about in­ac­cu­rate voter reg­is­tra­tions. He said the party has faith in Tax Asses­sor Ann Har­ris Ben­nett to en­sure reg­is­tra­tions are ac­cu­rate.

The Har­ris County Repub­li­can Party’s spokesman, Vlad Da­vid­iuk, said the mishandled voter reg­is­tra­tion chal­lenge shook the party’s con­fi­dence in Ben­nett’s of­fice. Da­vid­iuk said he doubts the county voter regis­trar is send­ing con­fir­ma­tion let­ters to vot­ers who ap­pear to list in­valid ad­dresses.

“There was no ev­i­dence that cor­rec­tive step was be­ing taken pre­vi­ously, and I have no con­fi­dence it would be taken in the fu­ture,” he said.

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