Houston’s registrar says she’s under no obligation to remove non-citizens from her voter rolls under the National Voter Registration Act, testing the limits of how far states and localities can go in trying to thwart efforts to clean up their election lists.
Ann Harris Bennett, registrar for Harris County in Texas, is battling to keep secret the names of non-citizens who signed up to vote and, in some cases, may have even cast ballots. In a federal court filing last week she said people can be removed for other reasons, but there is no requirement she erase names of people even after they tell her they aren’t citizens.
“Once a person is officially registered to vote, a state may only remove them from the voting list if: the person dies, changes residence, asks to be removed from the list, or becomes ineligible under state law because of criminal conviction or mental incapacity,” Ms. Bennett said in court papers. The National Voter Registration Act “does not create any obligation for a state to conduct a list maintenance program to remove the names of voters who may be ineligible due to lack of citizenship.”
Ms. Bennett is fighting a request by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative group pushing to clean up voter rolls, which asked the county to turn over records of people who’d signed up to vote then later admitted they weren’t citizens.
She is one of what appears to be a trend of registrars arguing that groups looking to add more names to the voter rolls are protected by the NVRA, but those looking to trim bloated lists of old or erroneous names are not entitled to use the 1993 law to pry loose records.
Neal Kelley, the registrar in Orange County, California, made a similar argument in a response to the PILF last week, saying he would only turn over records “if the request is being made in furtherance of the purposes of the National Voter Registration Act which is to enhance voting opportunities for every American.”
Mr. Kelley demanded PILF provide proof that it’s trying to add more names to the voting rolls in order to get a look at the county’s citizenship records.
The pushback is perhaps to be expected after the PILF used the NVRA, popularly known as the “motor-voter law,” to demand records from other states and localities that showed their voting lists were bloated with people who admitted to not being citizens.
The NRVA gives private citizens the power to demand election officials share data on their efforts to maintain their voter rolls. But Mr. Kelley and Ms. Bennett say that power can only be invoked by people trying to add more names to the rolls, not for organizations like PILF trying to cut down on bogus names.
Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the PILF, said Ms. Bennett was defending “needless government secrecy.”
He said one of their requests was for people who specifically asked to be removed, citing their own status as non-citizens — one of the conditions Ms. Bennett herself said was valid for list maintenance.
Mr. Churchwell and PILF founder J. Christian Adams both said Ms. Bennett is also misconstruing the history of the NVRA, which specifically says one goal is to ensure “accurate” voter lists.
“You cannot have ‘Motor Voter’ without list maintenance. We cannot gauge the efficacy of Harris County’ list maintenance efforts without lines of sight into their processes,” Mr. Churchwell said.
The question of non-citizens registered and, in some cases, voting in elections has become heated since President Trump claimed millions of illegal votes skewed the results of the 2016 election, costing him the popular vote, even though he won the Electoral College.
Then a city commissioner in Philadelphia last year said perhaps 100,000 non-citizens were registered to vote in Pennsylvania. The state has disputed that number but acknowledges a glitch in its systems that may have allowed some legal immigrants to register even though they didn’t have citizenship.
PILF has sued to try to get a look at records on those 100,000 people.
But even as PILF seeks to pry loose more records, it’s facing its own challenge from a Hispanic advocacy group that says the efforts are more about voter intimidation than clean elections.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sued in federal court in Alexandria arguing PILF is defaming people by publishing reports naming them after they’ve been identified as non-citizens and removed from voter rolls. LULAC said in some cases the people identified by government records, and reported by PILF, were actually valid citizens.
“Spurious accusations of voter fraud cause real harm both to the accused individuals and to our broader democracy,” the organization said in its lawsuit, representing several Virginia residents who were, in fact, citizens even though officials removed them from the rolls.
PILF said if there were errors, they rested with the state’s own records, and said there’s no legal basis to hold the organization liable.
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