Partisan Battles Plague Voter Registration Drive

On Aug. 24, Harris County Registrar Leo Vasquez called a news conference to decry an "organized and systematic attack" on the integrity of Harris County’s voter rolls. The alleged perpetrator: a group called Houston Votes 2010, which was bankrolled by the nonprofit Texas Together Fund for the purpose of mounting a massive voter registration drive.

The project has targeted more than 600,000 voters in predominantly poor and minority communities in Houston, says Fred Lewis, the Austin-based lawyer and ethics reform lobbyist behind the drive. The group aimed to bring 100,000 new voters to the polls. Now, less than a month before Election Day, Lewis' organization is the subject of a rumored investigation by the Texas attorney general's office amid swirling accusations of fraud, conspiracy and ties to the New Black Panthers.

According to Vasquez, the applications turned in by Houston Votes had serious problems — multiple forms from the same voters, voters who had already registered, and filled out without proper identification — in an estimated 5,500 of the 26,000 voter registration applications. What he calls a “surprisingly high failure rate” prompted him to alert the public after problems continued despite requests for better “quality control” in two separate meetings with Lewis. As a result, Vasquez contends, the AG’s office is looking into possible violations of the election code and the more serious charge of submitting falsified records. A representative for the AG’s office would not confirm that an investigation is underway, citing official policy. Lewis’ attorney, Jim George, says he had no knowledge of an investigation.

Voter fraud scares are common prior to an election, says University of Texas political science professor Sean Theriault, though the amount of actual fraud is “pretty minimal.” But even one or two instances can create the impression of “rampant” fraud: “It's not at all unusual or out of the ordinary for someone to fill out more than one voter registration card,” he explains, and it doesn’t necessarily suggest sinister motives.

George acknowledges that there were errors on some of the applications. A staffer who was paid by the number of voters registered filled out a number of false forms, he says. “He was stealing from us, and we fired him,” George says, adding he believes that explains the irregularities Vasquez found.

Vasquez’s news conference was the first public eruption of a political slugfest already brewing between Houston Votes and the King Street Patriots, a local Tea Party group. The Patriots have financed an anti-voter fraud initiative called “True the Vote,” formed after the 2008 election to independently monitor the polls.

Lewis recently filed a defamation suit against Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, in Travis County court. The suit arises from comments she made at an Aug. 9 True the Vote meeting that linked Houston Votes to the New Black Panthers, a radical black separatist group known for the inflammatory statements of its leaders. The meeting featured a speech from Christian Adams, the Department of Justice lawyer who resigned in June to protest a decision by his higher-ups to drop an investigation into whether the Panthers intimidated Philadelphia voters during the 2008 presidential elections. While introducing Adams, Engelbrecht showed an undated clip of an unidentified black man in dreadlocks on speaking on Fox News, saying, “We have to exterminate white people off the face of this planet to solve this problem.” After playing the clip, Engelbrecht said, “Houston has a new neighbor; the New Black Panthers have opened up an office.” Then she showed an image of the Houston Votes office, saying: “That looks mysteriously like the T-shirt that the Houston Vote group wears.” (Watch the clip, provided by Lewis’ attorney, below. A video of the full meeting is on the King Street Patriots site here.)

The Liberty Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that litigates First Amendment claims, is representing Engelbrecht and the Patriots in the defamation suit. Jeff Mateer, the Institute’s general counsel, declined comment on Engelbrecht’s behalf but said they'll file an answer to Lewis’ complaint by Oct. 25. In a separate conversation, the Institute's executive director, Hiram Sasser, called the suit “an effort to intimidate citizens to exercise their rights to free speech and the government,” adding that the Constitution provides broad protection to citizens who engage in political speech.

George says there’s a difference between Engelbrecht’s “known falsehoods” and protected political speech. “The complaining of one side that the other is a genocidal criminal is well beyond the pale of what we allow in America,” he says, noting that citizens can “talk about public matters in any way they want to, but they cannot make up lies.”

The Texas Democratic Party has also stepped in with a suit of its own — against Vasquez, who they believe had partisan motivations in calling his news conference. The party's suit charges that Vasquez violated a settlement of 2008 litigation against his predecessor, Paul Bettencourt, now the treasurer of the Republican Party of Texas, over whether he denied legitimate voter applications.

Vasquez, who lost an election bid in the 2010 Republican primary, says he has no reason to be partisan. "I'm not on the ballot. I have nothing to gain by trying to help out the Republican Party or hurt any other party,” he says. “Our focus is just trying to look at good government, keep a clean voter roll, maintain that integrity."

He also denies the Democrats' charges that he collaborated with the Patriots in attacking Houston Votes by sharing voter records. The only communication they had up until the Aug. 24 news conference, he says, was when they filed an open records request to conduct their own separate review of the voting rolls.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 4 — the deadline for registering to vote for the November election — Houston Votes 2010 was well below its goal of adding 100,000 new voters to the rolls. “We had registered around 29,000 as of Vasquez's press conference, when we lost substantial canvassers, funding, and volunteers,” Lewis said in an e-mail. “I do not have the final number from the database managers, but I believe we registered over 35,000 people.”

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