While saying it had received no complaint against the Democratic group Battleground Texas, the office of Texas Secretary of State Nandita Berry suggested Wednesday that the group's voter registration practices might rise to a “potential level of offense” of state election law.
Battleground Texas strongly disputes breaking any laws and said a flap over its registration efforts has Republicans running scared. At issue is a videotaped conversation with Battleground Texas volunteers in Bexar County. It was gathered surreptitiously by controversial conservative activist James O’Keefe, who has sent people posing as interested volunteers to infiltrate Democratic or liberal activist groups, after which he disseminates video that was secretly gathered.
In the video, an unedited version of which The Texas Tribune reviewed, a Battleground voter registration coordinator is quoted as saying the group takes phone numbers gathered as part of the registration process. She said the phone numbers would be used to call the voters close to election time to urge them to vote.
“Once we register people to vote tonight, we will all turn in our cards and our data person will enter, not all the information, but name, address and phone number,” the Battleground representative says. “We can then call everyone here and say, 'Hi, I registered you to vote.'”
O’Keefe’s group, Project Veritas, which has been known to manipulate videos to make them seem more damaging to the people in them, claims Battleground broke state election law by collecting the phone numbers.
Whether Battleground did anything wrong in the process comes down to how the law is interpreted. Section 13.004 of the Texas Election Code says, in part, that county registration officials may not “transcribe, copy or otherwise record a telephone number furnished on a registration application.”
According to Berry spokesman Jeff Hillery, the "volunteer deputy registrars" who sign up voters for groups like Battleground Texas are subject to the same criminal liability that applies to county officials. A violation of that statute is considered misdemeanor “official misconduct” and is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, jail time of up to six months or both, the law says. Hillery said phone numbers on voter registration applications are treated as confidential information.
Hillery noted that the office of the secretary of state has no power to investigate or enforce the law.
“Since our office isn’t an investigative or enforcement agency, we can’t speak to a potential level of offense; that’s a question best directed” to the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for Texas governor.
Abbott’s office said it would check into the matter Wednesday but did not immediately call the Tribune back.
Battleground Texas spokesman Ellis Brachman said the group "fully complies with the law." He also took note of O'Keefe's controversial past, which includes a guilty plea to entering a federal building under false pretenses.
“Let’s be clear: James O’Keefe is an admitted criminal with a long and well-documented record of misleading attacks who is trying to make sure that fewer Texans are able to vote. The real story here is that Battleground Texas volunteers are patriotically working to get more Texans involved in our democracy," Brachman said. "O’Keefe and his Republican allies in Texas are scared of our success and are doing everything they can to interfere.”
A Democratic election law expert, Buck Wood of Austin, expressed doubt that any crime occurred. He said the plain language of the statute makes it clear that the volunteer registrars are not considered to be county officials. He said the law was intended to ensure the government isn’t disseminating private information and doesn’t address what volunteers who get a phone number from a would-be voter at a county fair booth, for example, can do with the information.
Wood said only the Legislature would have the power to change the law to make the criminal provision apply to volunteer registrars.
“They could define it as being improper,” Wood said. “I don’t think you’d ever be able to reach them criminally.”
Texas is at or near the bottom of the barrel nationally in terms of voter participation, and Democrats say Republicans want to keep it that way — in part by imposing tight regulations on people who register voters. Berry, the secretary of state, is an appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
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