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Harris County Accused of Voter Suppression

HOUSTON (CN) - Harris County violates the Voting Rights Act by rejecting minorities' voter registration applications more often than whites' applications, LULAC claims in Federal Court.

The League of United Latin American Citizens and seven Houston residents sued Harris County and its voter Registrar Don Sumners, citing a litany of civil rights violations.

With 4.1 million people, Harris County, whose seat is Houston, is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. It contains about 16 percent of the population of Texas.

"Defendants reject a substantially higher rate of applications than any other Texas county," the complaint states. "Furthermore, the rejection rate for applicants in Harris County has a racially disparate impact and adversely impacts persons who are members of a protected language minority group.

"For example, the rejection rate for Latino applicants during the period 2009 through 2012 was higher than the rejection rates for Anglo applicants. Applicants from majority Latino zip codes in Harris County have a higher rejection rate than those from non-Latino, non-black zip codes.

"The rejection rate for black voter registration applicants from 2009 to 2012 was also higher than the rejection rates for Anglo applicants. Applicants from majority black zip codes in Harris County have a higher rejection rate than those applicants from non-Latino, Anglo zip codes."

LULAC, a nonprofit, claims Harris County and Sumners reject voter registration applications "for the sole reason that the alleged residential address of an applicant may be a commercial address," which is prohibited by a settlement the county reached with the Texas and Harris County Democratic Parties in 2009.

That deal requires the voter registrar's office to submit to the Secretary of State "any application for registration that 'legibly provides' certain basic information," LULAC says, but from 2009 to 2012 Sumners rejected hundreds of applications even when they included all the needed information.

The settlement came after the Texas and Harris County Democrat Parties sued Harris County's former voter registrar in Federal Court in 2008, claiming it had improperly denied 65,000 voter registration applications.

"There is also a history of the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Office's failure to process voter registration applications in a timely manner," LULAC says in its new complaint.

LULAC says this "application backlog is disproportionately African-American and/or Latino."

And, it claims, a state-mandated voter registration sweep Sumners' office carried out by sending 9,018 letters to Harris County voters on Sept. 5, asking if they were deceased, targeted a disproportionately high number of minorities.

The letters were the result of a new state law requiring voter rolls to be matched against the Social Security Administration's master death file, to purge the rolls of dead people.

"Following the mailing, defendant Sumners' office received numerous confirmations and complaints from recipients of the letters that they were still alive," the complaint states. "Defendant Sumners has admitted the list of allegedly dead voters was flawed due to the weak[ness]... of the 'database matching criteria[.]'

"In response to numerous Harris County voters' confirmations that they are alive and the weakness of the matches in the allegedly deceased voter file, and following a public uproar over the incident, defendant Sumners decided that persons not responding to the challenge letter will remain on the voter rolls until after the November 6 election." (Brackets in original.)

Despite Sumners' announcement, LULAC says, he has not notified any of the letter recipients that they will not be removed from the voter rolls for the November election.

"The 9,018 letters sent by defendant Sumners disproportionately targeted African-American and Latino voters in Harris County," LULAC says.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that Harris County's and Sumners' voter registration procedures violate the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the First and 14th Amendments, and they want the policies enjoined.

They are represented by LULAC staff attorney Luis Roberto Vera Jr., of San Antonio.

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