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Civil rights group asks judge to sanction state in voter registration suit

By Jim Malewitz

Civil rights lawyers suing Texas over its voter registration practices are asking a federal judge to sanction the state for allegedly blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents related to the case.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The plaintiffs say they were hoping for quick action as the 2018 election cycle looms, but claim the state is dragging its feet.

State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas requested multiple extensions, according to a filing this week in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio.

“It’s hampering our ability to prepare for the case,” said Cassie Champion, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The timing is so important.”

The filing asked Judge Orlando Garcia to hold Texas in contempt and order its lawyers to immediately produce the documents and pay any fees “resulting from their failure to comply” with his previous order. Champion said she wasn’t sure what such fees would total.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office declined to comment Wednesday, as did the Department of Public Safety.

In legal filings, Texas says its practices comply with the federal law in question, sometimes known as the Motor Voter Act.

The 1993 law requires states to give folks the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

No one disputes that Department of Public Safety follows the law when Texans handle that business in person, but it’s a different story for folks who update their license information online, the lawsuit argues.

The DPS website eventually directs Texans who check “yes” to the statement “I want to register to vote” to the Secretary of State’s website. There, they can find a registration form that they must print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” the process has spurred “widespread confusion” among Texans who erroneously thought the state had automatically updated their registrations, the lawsuit alleges.


Over a 20-month stretch ending in May 2015, the state fielded more than 1,800 complaints from Texans who erroneously thought their voter registration records were up-to-date after they dealt with their driver’s licenses online, according to court filings.

The lawsuit argues the Motor Voter law applies to all voters — regardless of how they deal with their driver’s licenses — and Texas violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating them differently.

“Texas voters will continue to be shut out of the democratic process unless and until Defendants reform their registration practices,” the complaint argues.

The state disagrees, saying DPS is not to blame if Texans fail to follow its instructions. And the state says would-be voters can’t submit their signatures — which are required under state law — unless they mail in applications or fill them out in person.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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