Federal judge strikes down Texas election law requiring residency verification of voter registration addresses

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel struck a Texas election law requiring county registrars to verify the addresses of registered voters in their jurisdiction.

The law in question Senate Bill (SB) 1111, requires county voter registration offices to verify that addresses at which voters are registered match residences, not just PO boxes or other types of addresses. Previously, the Electoral Code instructed the registrar to carry out a verification only if he had “reason to believe that the current residence of a voter is different from that indicated on the registers of registration”.

If a registrar has reason to believe that the registration address is not a residence, they are responsible for notifying the voter and requesting verification such as a driver’s license, ID issued by the state, transportation license, county district assessment document showing ownership status, utility bill, or official tax or motor vehicle document confirming address.

Under state code, PO boxes can be used as mailing addresses listed in voter records, but not as physical addresses listed.

In his Declaration of Intent for SB 1111, State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) wrote, “Currently, the Texas Election Code does not sufficiently define the characteristics of a voter’s residential address.”

“Consequently, the vague description of a residential address allowed voter registration certificates with residential addresses corresponding to vacant lots, mailbox stores, motels, and commercial locations.”

The plaintiffs — the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and Voto Latino — alleged that three provisions of the bill “constitute an unconstitutional charge to the right to vote.”

The first is the section that requires voters whose registration address is a post office box to submit “proof of the voter’s residential address” to the Registrar. The second states that “a person may not establish his residence for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election”, called the “residency provision”. And the third states that a registered address is not lost if the voter leaves for “temporary purposes only”.

Judge Yeakel ruled that the first provision in question is justified except in the case where the voter would no longer claim to live at the address of the postal box; the second is not “narrow” and therefore “fails any degree of constitutional review”; and the temporary relocation provision fails to “pass constitutional scrutiny” on the grounds that it does not exempt students who are transient between school and home.

On the last point, the judge wrote, “that a person cannot designate a residence ‘unless the person inhabits the place at the time of the designation and intends to remain there'”.

Regarding full-time students, the law states: “[A] voter registered as a full-time student who lives on the campus of an institution of higher learning can use the address of a post office box located on the campus of the institution or in a dormitory owned or operated by the establishment to confirm the identity of the voter’s residence.”

Senator Bettencourt, the author of the bill, said The Texan“This is a disappointing decision as it goes against common sense electoral practices.”

“The law just requires you to register where you live, and without that we will have people registering to vote on the head of a pin. People can’t live in PO boxes.

According to Bettencourt, as many as 8,000 voters registered at Harris County mailboxes.

“We are delighted that the court recognized what we knew all along: that SB 1111 is unconstitutional and must be struck down,” said María Teresa Kumar, President and CEO of Voto Latino. “The real purpose of this discriminatory measure has always been to suppress voter turnout – especially among young people, communities of color, low-income voters and other historically marginalized groups.”

The attorney general’s office is likely to appeal, but it had to make a procedural move to secure that ability.

LULAC’s original lawsuit did not name the state as a defendant but voter records in six strongly Democratic counties: Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Hidalgo and Travis.

Therefore, to secure the right of appeal, the State of Texas had to intervene in the lawsuit – a petition from an interested party that seeks to show a personal interest in the outcome of the case.

Four of the six defendant court clerks refused to rule on either LULAC’s claims or the attorney general’s motion to intervene. A single registration office, Yvonne Ramón of Hidalgo Countyopposed the plaintiff’s motion, on the ground that it merely followed state law passed by the legislature which should therefore be the star defendant.

The sixth clerk, Lisa Wise from El Paso Countyon the plaintiffs’ side, arguing that the “lack of clarity in the residency provision has a real impact on voters’ ability to register and vote”.

If appealed by the state, the next stage of the trial is the US Fifth Circuit.

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