Harris County residents keen to vote in the upcoming midterm elections should be very careful about checking their mail. Recently, some residents of Third Ward received letters informing them of an address change they had not actually filed and which, if not answered, would put their franchise into suspension. It looks to be the result of a Republican-led challenge to thousands of Houston voters.
Lynn Lane, the well-respected Houston photographer who does a lot of theater and dance photography, almost threw the envelope away, thinking it was junk mail. Instead, it was from Ann Harris-Bennett, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar. Though Lane has lived at his address for the past five years, his letter said otherwise. Furthermore, lack of response would cost him the right to vote. It reads:
“If you do not respond at all to this notice, your registration will be canceled if you have not confirmed your address either by completing the response form or confirming your address when voting before November 30 following the second general election for state and county officers that occurs after the date the confirmation notice is mailed.”
Lane subsequently checked his voter registration and found that his voting rights were indeed listed as suspended. He says that a neighbor and others he had spoken to – who declined to be named in this story - had received similar letters.
“Something is definitely fishy with them trying to cancel voters registration stating our addresses have changed and if we don’t return these forms completed they will remove us from the registration and we will not be able to vote in November,” says Lane.
Archie Rose in Harris-Bennett’s office said that he suspected voter registration challenges were to blame when contacted for comment. According to Section 16 of the Texas Election Code, “a registered voter may challenge the registration of another voter.” Alan Vera, Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee, has delivered 4,000 such challenges to Harris-Bennett’s office.
The move was lauded by Empower Texans, a social conservative group, who said it was a “much needed review, after local citizens took the initiative to identify voters who registered at addresses where they don’t reside.”
Republicans have previously been accused of using challenges to disenfranchise people in areas heavily-populated by minorities such as Third Ward. In 2004, Republicans in Wisconsin, a state whose narrow margin of victory for Donald Trump was instrumental in his election to the presidency, challenged 5,600 Milwaukee voters. That same year a GOP-led campaign was responsible for tens of thousands of challenges in Ohio, another key battleground state.
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Erroneously or not, Lane’s letter is indicative that Vera and the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee’s movement has resulted in some lawfully registered voters in minority neighborhoods seeing their right to vote jeopardized. As the current system allows any registered voter to initiate such challenges against anyone they suspect or wish to accuse of improper registration, it is open to coordinated mob misuse.
“This is voter suppression at its finest,” says Lane. “And it’s also a waste of taxpayer dollars to send out all of these forms and then have us send them back to make sure we’re okay when we were okay before.”
Voters are encouraged to check their mail carefully in case they have also been challenged, and to make regular checks of the Secretary of State website to confirm their voter registration status. Anyone who receives a letter like Lane’s should respond promptly as instructed.
The midterm election is November 6, with early voting starting October 22. Many high-profile races are happening, the most prominent being Beto O’Rourke (D) taking on Ted Cruz (R) for the United States Senate in an extremely tight race. Lupe Valdez (D) also hopes to unseat Governor Greg Abbot (R).