LULAC Sues Harris County Over “Targeted” Voter Purge

by Published on

 

When Dateline Houston reported on Harris County’s deeply flawed “dead” voter purge, in which the county—under state instruction and then duress—risked disenfranchising thousands of legitimate voters in the interest of election integrity, the Houston Chronicle had already pointed out that a disproportionate number of those affected were minorities. At the time, Dateline Houston wasn’t aware of anyone coming out and saying the purge was motivated by racial or partisan bias. Well, now someone has.

First, the quick-and-dirty history. (Long snarky version here.) The state regularly uses various data to determine if a voter has died and should have her registration canceled. Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that dramatically expanded (and, it seems, polluted) that list. About 77,000 Texans got letters in the mail asking if they were dead, and saying their voter registration would be canceled if they didn’t write back. Harris County residents got 9,000 of those letters. When Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners heard immediate complaints from living voters, he said no one here would be purged until after the election and more investigation. To coerce Harris County into compliance, the state froze the county’s voter registration funding. Four not-dead-yet voters sued, and the whole affair was dropped until after the election.

To Dateline Houston, it seemed Sumners was defending all voters by stopping the operation as soon as it proved defective. But not to LULAC.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) joined seven voters Thursday in filing a federal lawsuit against Harris County and Sumners, alleging that he “targets the Latino and black communities in his voter purging by ZIP code,” said Attorney Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., LULAC’s general counsel, to the Houston Chronicle.

That makes LULAC’s accusation sound like a straightforward, moustache-twisting deletion of Garcias. Actually, what the suit alleges are a few piecemeal forms of discrimination only loosely tied to the recent voter purge, plus the overarching observation that the voter application rejection rate from 2009 to 2012 was higher for Latinos and black voters than for Anglos, and higher in majority Latino and black neighborhoods than majority Anglo neighborhoods.

The suit alleges this effect is deliberate, “undertaken with a racially discriminatory intent to deny or abridge the right to vote of African-American [and]…Latino persons.”

LULAC alleges that Sumners is denying voter applications because the voter’s residential address might be a commercial address, despite a 2009 settlement with the Texas Democratic Party where Harris County specifically promised that they wouldn’t do that. Sumners also allegedly rejected hundreds of applications for failing to include “all the required information,” despite the fact that the 2009 settlement included a fairly short list of basic information that had to be “legibly [provided]” for registration. LULAC also says that “all the required information” is too vague a grounds for rejection, and that Sumners’ decision not to send his staff to collect the voter registrations from new citizens at Houston Area Naturalization Ceremonies constituted a change in procedures that required federal pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Finally, LULAC objects to Sumners’ failure to notify the 9000 Harris County residents who got “Are you dead?” letters that their registrations would not be canceled even if they failed to confirm their perpetuance.

It’s worth noting that House Bill 174, which expanded the perhaps-dead voter list by requiring the secretary of state to incorporate data from the Social Security “death master list,” passed with only one opposing vote and did get federal pre-clearance.

In response to the LULAC suit, Sumners’ office put out a press release that can be objectively described as snotty. It begins: “Here we go again. Another unwarranted political lawsuit.”

The release, written in the first person apparently by Sumners, says LULAC’s accusations are a retread of the previous suit, baseless and politically motivated. He’s obviously not rejecting voters for commercial addresses, he says, because a True the Voter recently sent him a “challenge” list of hundreds of registered voters with commercial address whom she wanted removed. Of course, this isn’t as strong a defense as it initially seems, because LULAC is not alleging that Sumners is cancelling all voter registrations from commercial addresses. They allege that Sumners is cancelling more commercial-address registrations from minority neighborhoods than Anglo ones. So the fact that a True-the-Voter can come up with hundreds of commercial-address voter registrations doesn’t prove that LULAC is wrong. If those addresses turned out to be in predominantly Anglo neighborhoods, it could prove them right.

Sumners also points out that nobody, dead or undead, is getting purged before the November elections, which also sounds like a strong defense at first. But that’s not what LULAC’s suit is about. It’s about, in part, the failure of Sumners’ office to notify people that they won’t be purged in the same official capacity as he told them they would be. Sumners’ retort also focuses only on the last two months, and doesn’t address the LULAC claim that racially disproportionate purges have been occurring since 2009.

Finally, Sumners says that the naturalization ceremony claim is “totally wrong and easily disproven,” though he doesn’t say how.

If the system works, the courts will establish who’s right in this he-said-they-said conflict. Place your bets in the comments section. But to Dateline Houston, the most important player in the Harris County zombie voter scandal is only mentioned in passing the in the dispatches from these two sides.

In the second paragraph of Sumners’ “pfft, check out this guy” press release, he notes, “The Secretary of State is not named as a defendant” in LULAC’s suit. The Texas legislature, after all, found time to pass into law the big changes that risked so much disenfranchisement, all to stop the four dead-voter-impersonators that cast ballots in this year’s run-offs. But the Secretary of State’s office is the one that froze Harris County voter registration funding for refusing to purge voters even after it became obvious to all involved that the new dead list was fatally flawed.

While LULAC mud-wrestles Harris County, who will point fingers at the state?

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.