Will Racke, DCNF
A right-leaning legal nonprofit says it will sue Texas’ largest county if it doesn’t produce records in connection with thousands of noncitizens who somehow made it on to the county’s voter rolls.
The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), an Indiana-based law firm that focuses on election integrity issues, sent Monday a notice to the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector threatening a federal lawsuit if officials continue to withhold documents the group had requested about voters who had not met citizenship requirements for registration.
In December, PILF asked Harris County officials to turn over certain voter information, part of a broader campaign to investigate the improper registration of noncitizens in jurisdictions across the country. County officials denied the request, asserting that voter registration records were exempt from Texas open records laws.
PILF has countered that Harris County is obligated to provide voter registration records under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which allows private citizens to inspect “records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.”
Logan Churchwell, PILF’s communications and research director, claims Harris County officials are “digging in their heels” to fight the group’s records request, despite their previous on-the-record admissions that noncitizen voting has occurred there. Compared to other Texas counties that have readily turned over voter registration documents to PILF, Harris County has been curiously uncooperative, he says.
“What’s particularly interesting about Harris is that you have multiple points in recent history where officials have gone on record and said, ‘Yeah, it’s happening, it’s a problem,’” Churchwell told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Under Texas law, county tax assessor-collectors also serve as voter registrars, and are responsible for ensuring that all voters meet eligibility requirements, including U.S. citizenship. At just over 4 million residents, Harris County is the most populous in Texas and the third largest in the country. About one quarterof all Harris County residents are foreign-born.
On at least two occasions, the Harris County voter registrar has publicly admitted that the county has problems keeping noncitizens off the voter rolls. In 2006, then-Voter Registrar Paul Bettencourt, a Republican, testified before a Congressional committee that voting by foreign nationals “has and will continue to occur.”
More recently, former Voter Registrar Mike Sullivan, also a Republican, told the Texas House Elections Committee in a 2015 hearing that county officials regularly discover hundreds of noncitizens on the voter rolls each month. Sullivan confirmed the annual tally of noncitizen registrants to be in the “low thousands” in Harris County alone.
The National Voter Registration Act gives private groups the ability to sue local jurisdictions that don’t comply with records requests made pursuant to the law. PILF says it is prepared to file a federal lawsuit within the next 90 days if Harris County doesn’t hand over the voter registration information it has requested.
“This isn’t a question about the existence of alien voting — but the scale,” PILF President and General Counsel J. Christian Adams said in a statement Monday. “We will go to federal court if we must to obtain these public records.”
Churchwell speculated that one reason Harris County regularly winds up with noncitizens on its voter rolls could be that third party registration groups target immigrants with poor English language ability who don’t understand voter registration laws. He called the situation a “double-edged problem” that could put immigrants in legal danger for violating state voting laws.
“We have an immigration problem, where immigrants who may not know as much as they should are getting trapped in this system, or we have people that are intentionally breaking the law,” Churchwell told TheDCNF. “And we can’t know any of that until Harris County does its duty and releases these records to the public.”
A spokesperson for the Harris County tax assessor-collector’s office was unable to comment on PILF’s document request, saying only that the matter had been referred to the Texas attorney general’s office for further review.
PILF says it intends to pursue further voter registration data in Texas’ major metro areas and border counties. Last month, it delivered to Bexar Country, which contains San Antonio, a similar notice to the one given to Harris County on Monday.
The group has used public records searches to uncover improper voter registration in several states including Virginia, where it found more than 5,000 noncitizens had been removed from voter roles between 2011 and 2017. About one-third of those registrants had voted in at least one election.
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