The law in question, Senate Bill (SB) 1111, requires county voter registrars to verify that addresses at which voters are registered correspond with residences, not only post office boxes or other kinds of addresses. Previously, the Election Code tasked the registrar with verification only if he had “reason to believe that a voter’s current residence is different from that indicated on the registration records.”
If a registrar has reason to believe the registration address doesn’t match up with a residence, he is tasked with notifying the voter and requesting verification such as a driver’s license, state-issued identification card, license to carry, document from the county appraisal district showing homestead status, utility bill, or official tax or motor vehicle document verifying the address.
Under state code, post office boxes may be used as mailing addresses listed in voter files but not as the listed physical address.
In his statement of intent for SB 1111, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) wrote, “Currently, the Texas Election Code does not sufficiently define the characteristics of a voter residence address.”
“Consequently, the vague description of a residence address has allowed voter registration certificates with residential addresses corresponding with 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 “unconstitutionally burden the right to vote.”
The first is the section that requires voters whose registration address is a post office box to submit “evidence of the voter’s residence address” to the registrar. The second states that “A person may not establish residence for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election,” referred to as the “residence provision.” And the third stipulates 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 save for any instance where the voter does not still claim to live at the post office box address; the second is not “narrowly drawn” and thus “fails any degree of constitutional scrutiny”; and the temporary relocation provision fails to “overcome constitutional scrutiny” on the grounds that it doesn’t exempt students who are transient between their school and home dwellings.
On the final point, the judge wrote, “that a person may not designate a residence ‘unless the person inhabits the place at the time of designation and intends to remain.’”
About full-time college students, the law states, “[A] voter enrolled as a full-time student who lives on campus at an institution of higher education may use the address of a post office box located on the campus of the institution or in a dormitory owned or operated by the institution to confirm the voter ’s residence.”
Sen. Bettencourt, the author of the bill, told The Texan, “This is a disappointing ruling because it flies in the face of common sense election practices.”
“The law just requires that you register where you live, and without it we’ll have people registering to vote on the head of a pin. People cannot live in PO boxes.”
According to Bettencourt, there have been up to 8,000 voters registered at Post Office boxes in Harris County.
“We’re thrilled that the court has acknowledged what we’ve known from the beginning: that SB 1111 is unconstitutional and needs to be struck down,” said María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. “The true intent of this discriminatory measure has always been about suppressing voter turnout — especially among young people, communities of color, low-income voters, and other historically marginalized groups.”
The Office of the Attorney General is likely to appeal, but it had to make a procedural maneuver to ensure that ability.
The original lawsuit by LULAC did not name the state as a defendant but voter registrars in six heavily Democratic counties: Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Hidalgo, and Travis.
Therefore, to secure the right to appeal, the State of Texas had to intervene in the lawsuit — a motion by an interested party that aims to show a personal stake in the outcome of the case.
Four of the six defendant registrars declined to opine either on LULAC’s claims or the attorney general’s intervention motion. Only one registrar, Yvonne Ramón of Hidalgo County, opposed the plaintiff’s motion, on the grounds that she has only followed state law passed by the legislature which should thus be the featured defendant.
The sixth registrar, Lisa Wise of El Paso County, sided with the plaintiffs, arguing that the residence provision’s “lack of clarity has real impact on voters’ ability to register and vote.”
If appealed by the state, the next stop for the lawsuit is the U.S. Fifth Circuit.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.