Of all the ways politicians can abuse their power, none is as serious as messing with voting rights. Corruption is troubling and can become endemic if left unchecked. Lying, especially under oath, weakens the bonds of trust in a democracy. Cronyism violates basic rules of fairness and leads to inefficiency in core government services. But tampering with the franchise is an offense against democracy itself. That’s why Greg Abbott’s successful efforts to shut down a voter registration campaign in Harris County are so troubling. Although the saga started unfolding four years ago, it only came to light in August, when The Dallas Morning News reported details of the criminal investigation and raid. I recently spoke with Fred Lewis, the man who headed up the voter registration drive and who is now accusing Abbott of a serious abuse of power. The effect, he said, has been to “criminalize” voter registration in order to “rally up the base.”
To briefly recap: In the run-up to the 2010 election, the tea party poll-watching group King Street Patriots began complaining about a voter-fraud conspiracy in Houston, linking ACORN, the New Black Panther Party and a new voter registration drive by Houston Votes, an offshoot of Lewis’ community organizing group Texans Together. In more innocent times, registering people to vote was seen as a dull but laudatory civic activity. But King Street Patriots saw a conspiracy, a threat. And, more importantly, so did Leo Vasquez, the Republican elected official in Harris County who oversaw the voter rolls at the time.
At a very unusual press conference in August 2010, Vasquez announced—alongside representatives from the King Street Patriots—that Houston Votes was behind an “organized and systematic attack” on the integrity of the voter rolls. Vasquez complained that many of the voter applications submitted by Houston Votes were duplicates or for people who had already registered—an almost universal feature of paid registration drives that rarely results in voter fraud. In any case, it turned out that Vasquez’s claim of 5,000 bogus applications was fancifully high. Nonetheless, Vasquez referred the case to the Texas attorney general’s office for an investigation.
Three months later, armed law enforcement officers dispatched by the AG’s office raided the Houston Votes office in Houston, and, two weeks later, hit Fred Lewis’ office at the Baptist Christian Life Commission headquarters in Austin, seizing computers and records. The raids were overseen by a 27-year-old investigator who developed a novel legal theory that Houston Votes had possibly committed felony identity theft by storing information collected from individuals in the course of registering them to vote. In October 2011, the investigation fizzled when the Harris County DA rejected the AG’s case for lack of evidence. Two years later, the AG’s office destroyed Texans Together’s computers and records, using a statute that deals with contraband. Lewis said he was never even notified. Though no charges were ever filed, Houston Votes’ database of new voters, its financial records, including a donor list, and Lewis’ personal files were destroyed.
Lewis, a veteran campaign finance attorney in Texas who founded Texans Together in 2006, said he didn’t even know the AG’s investigation had ended until he was contacted this past August by The Dallas Morning News—two years after the case had collapsed.
Though the case stalled, the armed raid and criminal investigation had an impact: Houston Votes lost its paid organizers, saw its funding crippled and its voter-registration efforts dwindle. Houston Votes had been on track to register 70,000 new voters in 2010, Lewis says. Because of the raid, it registered only about 25,000. Instead of bringing disenfranchised people into the system, the group was lawyering up.
Lewis, who worked as a lawyer at the attorney general’s office from 1989 to 1995, said he has warned colleagues to not even think about trying paid voter registration in Harris County. “They’ve criminalized voter registration in my view,” Lewis said.
Abbott has defended the investigation but also said he “didn’t know about it at the time it was going on.” The attorney general also strongly insinuated—despite the dead-end investigation—that Houston Votes had engaged in “some wrongdoing that was akin to ACORN-type political operations.”
Lewis said the episode suggests that either people at the top of the AG’s office wanted to shut down a voter registration drive or that the people running the investigation were zealots operating without supervision. “The problem was nobody was a professional, nobody was supervised, nobody said, ‘This is ridiculous, this is overkill, this is abuse, this is a bad precedent, this is not what we want to do in a democracy.’”
Texas has the lowest voter turnout in the nation. Is it any wonder why?