A residency crusade by a top-ranking member of the Harris County, Texas Republican Party could potentially disenfranchise thousands of voters.
According to the Houston Press, Alan Vera, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee (and co-founder of conservative vote-monitoring group True the Vote), has filed at least 4,000 residency challenges in Harris County, many of which are in Houston’s Third Ward. The Press reports that voters in the Third Ward are receiving letters from the office of the Tax Collector-Assessor and Voter Registrar, stating that their voter registrations were in jeopardy and they had to confirm their address via mail in order to remain on the voter rolls.
“Complete the response form and return it to my office within 30 days,” Ann Harris-Bennett, Harris County Tax Collector-Assessor and Voter Registrar wrote. “If you do not respond at all to this notice, your registration will be canceled if you have not confirmed your address.”
Lynn Lane, who has lived at his same address in the Third Ward since 2013, received one of those letters, and almost threw it away because he thought it was junk mail. Lane told Grit Post the challenge to his residency was “targeted voter suppression.”
“Three weeks ago, I just checked just to make sure that my voter registration was valid, and it was, so after I read that paragraph in the letter, I went online and a pop-up window on the site checking my voter registration said that my voter registration was now suspended,” Lane said in a phone interview. “The letter gives an indication that my address was challenged, and I’ve lived at this address for five years. I vote in every election possible. Primaries, bond issues, anything I can vote on. So there’s never been a lapse in my voter status.”
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in ZIP code 77004, which encompasses most of the Third Ward, 58 percent of residents are black. Harris County as a whole is a Democratic stronghold, going for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by 12.5 points despite Texas going for Donald Trump by nine points.
The challenges to voters’ residences are completely legal, according to Texas state law. Section 16 of Texas Election Code states that any registered voter can challenge the status of any other registered voter, provided the challenger and the voter in question both reside in the same county.
However, these challenges can prove costly for taxpayers, as each letter that goes out requires a stamp. When accounting for the costs to the county for the initial letters being sent out as well as postage for return letters and the cost for paying county employees to handle the bureaucracy of the entire process, the cost to county taxpayers is in the five-figure range.
Conservative group Empower Texans celebrated Vera’s residency challenges as justified, due to voters allegedly claiming a P.O. box as their domicile. In a phone interview, Vera said his residency crusade in Harris County was strictly motivated by a desire for voters to vote in the proper appraisal district.
“If I were living on the East side of Houston in a district that was parceled off by location, I wouldn’t want people on the West side imposing a new bond levy on me, because they don’t live there,” Vera told Grit Post. “It’s about making sure people vote in the correct election. A lot of elections are decided by fewer than 4,000 votes.”
Vera said the accusations that he is attempting to disenfranchise Democratic voters are false. He said that while he feels bad for voters like Lane who had their registrations suspended as a result of his challenge, that was the fault of Harris County, accusing the registrar’s office of not following proper protocol. Vera added that if a voter has their registration suspended, they can simply fill out a “Statement of Residence” (SOR) form when they show up to vote on Election Day.
“One of the people on my list was a precinct chair for the Republican Party, because she’s registered at the West Houston Airport. And [Harris County] doesn’t show any living accommodations there, so we challenged her as well,” Vera said, adding that the person in question was able to vote on a local bond issue after filling out an SOR form.
“No one is prevented from voting from this kind of challenge. They simply have to clear up their address,” he continued.
Lane doesn’t buy that argument. Texas state law specifies that if a voter is registered in a different precinct than the one where they show up to vote, they can be given a provisional ballot. However, there’s no guarantee that ballot will be counted. Lane told Grit Post he wouldn’t trust the county to count his provisional ballot if he was given one at his polling place.
“I feel like this definitely is voter suppression. It feels targeted. There’s no reason for anyone to ever challenge my voter status. I’ve lived here for five years. I’ve voted from the same location for five years,” Lane said. “It’s targeted. Especially when my neighbors are receiving the same letter, and we’ve all lived here for awhile.”
When asked why he didn’t challenge voters’ residences earlier in the year to give voters more time to update information prior to an election, Vera said he actually began the process in March, but “life caught up” with him.
“Between running my business and speaking all over the state, I just didn’t get to it. My bad,” Vera wrote in an email. “This should be done regularly, but I’m just one person.”
Texas is home to one of the most high-profile elections in the country. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) could potentially unseat Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in November. O’Rourke has raised over $10 million more than Sen. Cruz according to the latest FEC records.
Earlier this month, the Cook Political Report updated the Texas Senate race to the “Lean Republican” category. A Texas Lyceum poll released in late July showed O’Rourke was just two points behind Cruz. If O’Rourke wins in November, it would be the first time Texans have had a Democrat representing them in the U.S. Senate in 25 years. And the election may very well be decided by as little as 4,000 votes.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.