From 1880 to 1965, there was an all-out assault on preventing African Americans from voting by having their right to vote deemed invalid. The 15th Amendment prohibited blatant disenfranchisement on the basis of race or prior enslavement, but many Southern states came up with a slew of new and innovative alternative techniques to disenfranchise Blacks after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era, such as enacting a poll tax and introducing literacy tests as a means to keep Blacks from voting.
While the traditional techniques of violence by the Ku Klux Klan and the awful practice of voter suppression became more recognizable and outdated, individuals developed creative and crafty methods to challenge Black people’s right to vote through legislation that is impacting Black people even now.
With the very important and heated midterm elections coming up in November, roughly 4,000 eligible Harris County voters, mostly African Americans located in Houston’s historic 3rd Ward, recently had their voting rights attacked by an independent operative who used an antiquated Texas law to legally challenge their voting status.
On July 30, Republican activist Alan Vera filed a challenge to the Harris County Registrar’s Office, disputing the voting status of roughly 4,000 Harris County voters. The majority of the challenges made included P.O. Boxes, UPS stores and other mailing service centers, but consisted of standard addresses as well. After his challenge was filed, the registrar’s office sent out letters to those individuals, informing them that their voter registration status had indeed been challenged and that within 30 days they needed to prove they were eligible to vote. And there lies the problem with this disturbing issue.
The registrar’s office sent the letters well within the 90-day blackout window that is customary before the November midterm election. On top of that, approximately 1,700 of the challenged voters also had their voter registrations suspended without warning.
According to Ann Harris Bennett, who serves as the Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, the voter registration suspensions came as a result of a software glitch, and she encouraged everyone to not be alarmed or worried about their voting rights under her watch.
“There was a minor glitch in the software that we are required to use from the Secretary of State,” she said. “This issue did not just impact 3rd Ward, but it affected individuals all across Harris County. We quickly assessed the situation and corrected the problem once it was identified. Please rest easy and know that I will be protecting the integrity of the voter rolls of the citizens of Harris County.”
Bennett stated that after hearing about the letters, every single voter immediately had their full voting status restored to normal.
This snowball effect of attacking the voting rights of unsuspecting residents began when Vera filed a challenge using an antiquated state law that allows any registered voter to challenge the registration of another voter living in the same county.
According to Sec. 16.092 of the Texas Election Code that was enacted in 1986, a voter desiring to challenge a registration must file with the registrar a sworn statement of the grounds for the challenge that:
Identifies the voter whose registration is being challenged.
States a specific qualification for registration that the challenged voter has not met based on the personal knowledge of the voter desiring to challenge the registration.
Texas Sen. Borris Miles said that Republican-led groups like Empower Texas, True the Vote and the King Street Patriots are behind efforts like these to disenfranchise the precious vote of Harris County residents, particularly African Americans. He believes his colleagues in the Texas House and Senate must address the true intent of this bill and make it more defined.
“The legislative intent of this bill was to have a one-on-one challenge, not some mass, blanket challenge that is not clear,” he said. “When we go back to Austin during the 87th Legislative Session, we will be looking to amend and enact a bill that can directly address the issues, concerns and proper legislative intent that this bill was meant to address.”
U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee held a press conference to assure Harris County residents that their voting rights would be protected and called for action to be taken from the federal government to address any potential voter disenfranchisement that can impact voters.
“This is a discriminatory state law that is antiquated and almost equates to the laws that discriminated against racial minorities decades ago when they were required to pay a poll tax in order to vote,” she said. “Someone could be homeless or transitioning. There is no test for a person who can challenge your right to vote. You can simply challenge for any reason whatsoever, by anyone who may have an ax to grind or a discriminatory point of view. People should not be holding letters that stated, ‘Your voter registration is canceled,’ just because you have an independent operative who feels they can pick on anyone they want.”
Jackson Lee stated that the existing state law should be struck down and is asking the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved.
“I am asking the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, of which I have oversight, to ensure that every eligible voter can vote, and I want them to investigate this discriminatory law that violates the rights of Harris County residents and others across Texas.”
In response to the allegations that the Republican Party was behind this effort by Vera, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson responded and accused Bennett, who is a Democrat, for creating the fiasco.
“The Democrat Voter Registrar mistakenly suspended the registration of thousands of voters. … The Harris County Democratic Party then claimed Mr. Vera’s request had ‘changed the registration status’ of thousands of Democrat voters, when the list was party-neutral, and it was the Democrat Voter Registrar who had suspended those registrations. … It is inexcusable that Democrat Ann Harris Bennett failed to follow the law. She should not have suspended voters’ registrations. … Democrat Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett should not have jumped the gun by suspending those voters’ registrations. Instead, the law requires her to give them 30 days to respond to a written inquiry about their residence, to ensure they vote in the right jurisdictions. We urge Democrat Ann Harris Bennett to follow the law and quit violating voters’ rights.”
Protecting the voting rights of Texas residents and all Americans, especially racial minorities in this country, is an ongoing fight and one that must not be ignored.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 4 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected Blacks and other minorities in Southern states where discrimination still persists in many cases. As of 2018, at least 34 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. In August of last year, a federal appeals court ruled that at least part of Texas’ strict voter ID law could not be enforced.
Those that have sought to disenfranchise and discourage African Americans from voting know the importance of voting, as well as the profound impact that voting has on representation, political outcomes and critical decisions that must be made on major issues that impact us daily.
In November, U.S. citizens will be voting on all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, for 35 senators and for 36 governorships, with several races in the House and the Senate up for grabs, like the race in Texas involving Beto O’Rourke.
There are several voter suppression tactics that have been instituted across the U.S. by various groups, counties and state legislatures that are consistently being challenged by civil rights advocates.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents over 200 Black-owned media companies across the U.S., has been focused on protecting the voting rights of all people of color and is committed to shining the light on any voter suppression tactics that seek to negatively impact the voting rights of people of color in America.
In the meantime, registered voters should check their voter registration status at least one month before the midterm election to ensure they are still legally registered to vote.
Because of the importance of this midterm election, it is important that everyone remain vigilant and on the front lines to ensure the voting rights of everyone are protected and preserved.
Jeffrey Boney is a political analyst for the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com and the associate editor for the Houston Forward Times newspaper. He is an award-winning journalist, dynamic, international speaker, experienced entrepreneur, business development strategist and founder and CEO of the Texas Business Alliance.