We should have over two million registered voters for the election this fall, which would be a record high for Harris County. The question is whether that figure should be even higher.
For starters, 2 million citizens older than 17, in a county of roughly 4 million people, would represent only meager growth from the last presidential election here. The 2004 roll fell only 60,000 shy of 2 million.
On the other hand, the roll dropped to 1.8 million a year ago, due in part to Bettencourt’s groundbreaking efforts under state and federal law to remove outmoded or improper registrations.
Now, consider what the voter roll shows about the record-shattering voter turnout for the county’s March 4 presidential primaries. Those elections were preceded by several voter registration drives as Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for the Democratic nomination and John McCain emerged as the GOP favorite.
But of the 407,102 voters in the Democratic contest, only 9,850 had never registered to vote in Harris County before this year, according to statistics developed for the Houston Chronicle by Bettencourt’s staff. And of the 169,448 people who voted in the Republican primary, a mere 2,454 had never registered here.
The figures indicate that the stimulated local electorate was overwhelmingly people who had been registered without regularly having voted in primaries, according to Bettencourt and other election observers. Or it means that many people re-registered this year after letting their voter status lapse. Or both.
One of the challenges facing the county registrar’s office is the Houston area population’s apparent wanderlust. Half of the residents here rent their dwellings, according to the U.S. Census. Many switch locations every few months or years.
If those voters fail to update their registrations with new addresses, under federal law they are purged from the voter roll after two federal elections. In the meantime, they may be told at the voting place in their new neighborhood that they must return to their old neighborhood to vote.
Bettencourt voluntarily pursues voters to update their registrations after they move from one Harris County location to another. Using driver’s license address changes and other government records in a pioneering project, his staff sends letters to such voters — about 100,000 every summer — encouraging them to update their voter registrations.
Clearly, Harris County takes a lead role in the state for cross-checking government records to remove from the rolls voters who leave the county, are convicted of felonies, are discovered to be noncitizens (80 of those since January 2006) or die. Bettencourt said that, following state law and interpretations by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, his staff also is ahead of most of the state in using government records to challenge whether voters or registration applicants have claimed a real residential address.
Inevitably, a few challenges are misguided. Running six months behind on property records, the county mistakenly has rejected applications from voters who live in new dwellings. They are allowed to register eventually.
Bettencourt’s employees also have been sticklers about following state law on other portions of the voter application. They have rejected applications on which residents without Texas driver’s licenses provided Social Security numbers in lieu of license numbers — but failed to check the box that says they lack a license.
There’s no question that Bettencourt is aggressive about purging voters he believes to be ineligible from the rolls. He’s one of the more vocal claimants of the “voter fraud” myth, so that’s entirely in keeping with his philosophy. Bettencourt denies that he emphasizes purging over enrolling, and that may be, but I don’t think he can deny that his office doesn’t prioritize enrolling new voters. It’s just not what they do. And I hope we’re all clear on the reasons why Democrats are highly suspicious of aggressive voter-roll-purging by Republicans like Bettencourt.
What I’d like to know is what percentage of people in Harris County who are eligible to vote are actually registered to vote. I couldn’t find that information on the voter registration page. For comparison, in Travis County 94.4% of eligible voters were actually registered for the 2004 election. How many people could be enrolled in Harris County but aren’t?