A federal judge has ordered sanctions against the state of Texas for blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents in a lawsuit challenging its voter registration practices.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office’s “months-long delay” in producing the documents “has been disruptive, time consuming, cost consuming” and has burdened plaintiffs in the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio wrote in an order signed Thursday. Garcia ordered the state to pay some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, including those tied to the sanctions request.
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 group, hoping for quick action during the 2018 election cycle, argued in a motion for sanctions last month that foot-dragging from Paxton’s office was hampering its case. State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 requested pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas asked for several extensions.
Texas argued that the Secretary of State’s office was busy dealing with the 2016 general election and that its legal team — with only one attorney assigned to the case — lacked the manpower to respond to the information request.
Garcia rejected those and other arguments. He wrote that Texas had never asked for a deadline extension because of the election, and he suggested that Paxton’s office had plenty of resources.
“It is critical that these issues be resolved well before the 2018 election,” Beth Stevens, voting rights director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement Friday. “Today’s order is a strong sign the Court also recognizes the important issues at stake.”
In its lawsuit, the group claims the DPS website's voter registration features are convoluted, misleading and in violation of federal law.
Texas argues its practices comply with the 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 the 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 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 that the state violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating them differently.
“Our litigation is about making sure every voter can cast a ballot that counts,” Stevens’ statement said.