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Battleground Texas Fires Back at Critics

Battleground Texas, the Democratic group working to make the state politically competitive, wrote a letter to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Tuesday saying it has broken no laws.

Allegations that Battleground Texas broke the law during its voter registration activities are “entirely without foundation,” the Democratic group wrote in a letter to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Tuesday. 

Dewhurst, citing a secretly recorded video of Battleground volunteers in Bexar County, had earlier called for a criminal investigation because of allegations that privacy laws had been broken.

But Graham Wilson, an attorney for the group, told Dewhurst in the letter that his call for a probe “reflects no familiarity with either the law” or rules promulgated by the office of the secretary of state, which handles voter registration regulations at the state level.

He said opinions from Attorney General Greg Abbott demonstrate that phone numbers gathered during the voter registration process were considered public information. Phone numbers allegedly copied down by Battleground volunteers sparked the accusations in the first place.

“In short, Battleground Texas is operating in full compliance with the law as set forth in the Attorney General’s legal opinions, and with attention paid as appropriate to the Secretary of State’s official guidance in this area,” Wilson wrote.

Aides in both Dewhurst’s and Abbott’s press offices said they had not seen the letter and thus could not comment.

The flap stems from 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. 

The office of Texas Secretary of State Nandita Berry suggested last week that the group's voter registration practices might violate the law.

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.

Section 13.004 of the Texas Election Code says county registration officials may not “transcribe, copy or otherwise record a telephone number furnished on a registration application.” Berry spokeswoman Alicia Pierce said that section applies to “volunteer deputy registrars,” such as the ones working for Battleground Texas.

The Battleground lawyer disputes that interpretation, saying the statute refers only to county officials — not the volunteers who act on their own out in the field. 

As for the phone numbers, Wilson cited three opinions from the office of the attorney general, including one from 2010 stemming from a case in Dallas County. In that opinion, Abbott’s office concluded that “the county may not withhold the telephone numbers” from a requestor who had asked for the information.

Battleground also cited a pamphlet from the office of the secretary of state that says in part that a volunteer deputy registrar “may also copy the relevant information from the application in writing just as you would be able to do if you went to the registrar’s office and pulled a copy of the original application.”

Wilson said the group does not photocopy voter registration applications and “has not used and is not retaining phone numbers taken off voter registration forms by volunteers.”

Abbott, the Republican front-runner for governor, has recused himself from any investigation and referred the matter to Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed. A call placed to Reed’s office Tuesday afternoon was not immediately returned.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/02/25/battleground-texas-fires-back-critics/.

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