Dec 9 / Erin Ferns Lee

“Needless Brouhaha” Over Registering New Citizens to Vote in Texas

A new Texas county registrar and alleged Tea Party sympathizer recently raised some eyebrows over his effort to halt voter registration at naturalization ceremonies over alleged rule violations, a move that the local League of Women Voters called “ill-considered” since the practice has helped more than 60,000 newly eligible citizens register to vote over the last four years.

Houston’s monthly naturalization ceremonies swear in thousands of new citizens every year, roughly 80 percent of which register to vote through a joint effort between the League of Women Voters and the Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar’s staff, according to a Houston Chronicle editorial yesterday. Together, they would hand out voter registration forms and collect them after naturalization ceremonies.

Texas has a particularly cumbersome method of registering voters, requiring anyone assisting another to register to vote to become a deputy registrar. Before an applicant submits a card, the deputy registrar must provide the applicant a receipt with his or her given deputy registrar number, name, and organization. To speed the process up at naturalization ceremonies, the applications were turned over to county employees, “making receipts unnecessary.”

But, newly elected Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Don Sumners put a halt to this practice, saying that his predecessors violated rules because individual receipts are required along with all voter registration forms. Plus, he claimed budget cuts had made it impossible to send an on-site employee “for the roughly hour-and-a-half ceremonies,” the Chronicle wrote.

The county Democratic Party complained to the County Attorney Vince Ryan, whose office says that he will ask the the U.S. Justice Department “to provide preclearance of any changes in voter registration procedure as stipulated for Texas under the federal Voting Rights Act.” In response to the backlash, Sumners announced that he would seek a waiver from the Texas secretary of state to allow the League of Women Voters to collect the voter registration forms at naturalization ceremonies, although the secretary of state’s office has reportedly assured the League that “the current method of registering voters at naturalization ceremonies is proper and that the process will continue at the ceremony next Wednesday.”

“He also postponed the change in policy pending review by the Justice Department,” the Chronicle wrote. “It’s too bad he didn’t do that before setting off a needless brouhaha.”

“I am concerned that one of Mr. Sumners’ first acts of governance was so ill-considered,” said the League’s voter registration chair, Linda Cohn. “It would seem to me that a voter registrar would so happily embrace the opportunity to welcome new citizens to the electorate at a minuscule cost to the tax office.”

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