Harris County Questions Legality of Voters Registrations

There’s a legal debate under way over the method used to register new citizens as voters in Harris County. Officials at the voter registrar’s office say the way things have been done in the past is illegal.
Laurie Johnson reports.


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Once a month, Harris County holds a naturalization ceremony where between 1,100 and 1,500 people become U.S. citizens. At that ceremony, volunteers with the League of Women Voters hand out and collect voter registration applications.

Linda Cohn is with the Houston chapter of the league. She says they received a letter from newly elected Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Don Sumners on November 22nd, telling them the rules for collecting those applications will change.

“The letter that we received from Don Sumners indicated that he’s no longer willing to provide support to the ceremony by having — for about a half hour, they don’t have to be there for the whole ceremony — but about a half hour of county employee time to pick up those voter registration applications and take them to the tax office for processing.”

Cohn says the county is now instructing the league to hand out receipts to every new voter. But she says logistically that would be impossible.

“We cannot create a bottleneck. We cannot disturb the safe flow of foot traffic. There are, I would say, 3,000-5,000 people typically at the ceremony. Fifteen hundred petitioners and their guests. It is just not safe to create a bottleneck by approaching people and say hey can I help you sign up to register to vote.”

In his letter to the league, Sumners cites budget concerns as his reason for not sending a county employee to collect the applications.

But according to a representative with Sumners’ office, the budget isn’t the main issue.

Fred King is communications coordinator for the Voter Registrar. He says the way previous administrations allowed the league to collect votes was illegal.

“We have to give applicants receipts for their application. The generic form that the league prefers to use doesn’t have a barcode or tracking number on it. And it requires a separate piece of paper out of a receipt book for instance, and they don’t do that. And admittedly yes, like they say, it would be very cumbersome to do that, but the law requires some cumbersome things.”

King says the Registrar’s office is willing to work with the league to get a waiver from the state that would allow league volunteers to use a special application with a tear-off receipt.

Cohn says the league has already been operating under a waiver from the state for the past four years to conduct the registrations with no receipt at all.

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Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Executive Producer for News

Laurie Johnson leads daily news coverage for HPM. She helps reporters craft and sharpen their stories on tight deadlines, with the aim of getting the most relevant and current information into local newscasts. Laurie is a native Houstonian who started her career at Houston Public Media in 2002. She is...

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