The following email, sent from the League of Women Voters registration address to its membership, was forwarded to me. I present it below in its entirity:
From: LWV Voter Registration
Sent: Sunday, December 05, 2010 3:19 PM
Subject: Voter Registration at Naturalization Ceremonies
To our Voter Registration Volunteers:
It is my sad duty to inform you that we are no longer able to offer our customary on-the-spot voter registration service to new citizens at Houston Area Naturalization Ceremonies.
Mr. Don Sumners, newly elected and installed as Harris County Tax-Assessor Collector and Registrar of Voters, has issued directives that make it impossible for us to continue with our robust, comprehensive and efficient program.
We will distribute voter registration applications that can be completed and mailed; we will operate a limited receipt service for aspiring voters who wish to remain after dismissal for individual attention.
Please let Ann or me know if you wish to volunteer for duty at the Naturalization Ceremony to be held on December 15. We hope that you will want to be there.
We remain grateful to the United States District Court and to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for allowing us the opportunity to rejoice with America’s newest citizens on one of the most important days of their lives. We remain committed to seeking a correct, convenient and celebratory path for each new citizen to enter the electorate. We will always welcome discussions with Mr. Sumners to this end.
Until that happy day, please remember that over the past four years 63,080 new citizens became voters by your hands, an accomplishment that stands as proud testament to your dedication to civic virtue.
For Ann and for me, it is as always a personal pleasure. You have our thanks and our admiration.
The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area Education Fund
A followup email from the LWV explained the situation in some more detail:
As you know, we have the honor of being present at Houston Area Naturalization Ceremonies for the purpose of conducting an on-the-spot voter registration service. We are guests of the United States District Court and of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, who kindly grant us a few minutes at the conclusion of the ceremony to distribute voter registration applications and collect the completed applications as the new citizens exit the naturalization venue. At the typical ceremony 1500 petitioners are sworn; about 80% will register to vote on-site, literally within minutes of their oath. I know you’ll agree that it is an efficient and celebratory way for new citizens to enter the electorate.
The numbers and exigencies of safety and crowd control make receipted voter registration applications impractical. During the Bettencourt and Vasquez administrations tax office personnel were cheerfully dispatched to take immediate custody of completed voter registration applications; this waived our duty to provide each aspiring voter with a receipt. Mr. Sumners has withdrawn this element of support, which would amount to about an hour and a half of employee time per month. We can still distribute voter registration applications that new citizens can complete and later mail (although we cannot assist or answer questions – that would trigger deputy volunteer registrar protocols and hence the need for receipts). We can still offer one-on-one receipted voter registration to any aspiring voter who wishes to remain for personal attention. But this new iteration would be a feeble remnant of what was an excellent community outreach.
I am hopeful that Mr. Sumners will be persuaded that his decision was unwise and should be reversed.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know why a voter registrar would not want to allow registrations to take place at naturalization ceremonies. After all, this is the one time you can truly be sure of someone’s citizenship. Chris Moran of the Chron got some answers from Sumners about this.
[Sumners] said Monday that technically the League’s voter registration activities at monthly naturalization ceremonies are illegal without the receipts.
Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg filed a protest with the county attorney’s office, alleging a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act that requires the U.S. Department of Justice’s approval for any change in the way voter registration is conducted.
Sumners, who took office on Nov. 15, acknowledged that the change will create difficulties for the League. But he said all other voter registration groups have to submit receipts, as does the League at events other than the naturalization ceremonies.
“It’s a matter of bringing everybody under the same rules,” Sumners said.
Cohn said it was her understanding that the League operated under a state-approved exemption for its work at the ceremonies.
But Sumners said the state has granted no such exemption. The arrangement has been merely a tradition.
Sumners said he intends to send a letter to the Secretary of State this week to ask for a formal exemption for the League.
“We recognize the problem and we’re willing to help solve it,” Sumners said.
So Sumners is saying that his predecessors had been breaking the law all these years. I’d love to know if Bettencourt and Vasquez would agree with his characterization of their actions. I’m also very interested in hearing what the DOJ will say about Sumners’ actions. Since it seems to me that in the end Sumners thought this was basically a technicality, there must have been a less disruptive way for him to have dealt with it. Something tells me this won’t be the last time we say something like that about one of his actions. KHOU has more.