Thousands in Harris County may be wrongly banned from ballot box

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by By Mark Greenblatt / 11 News Defenders

khou.com

Posted on October 22, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 26 at 5:49 PM

HOUSTON -- With troubles at home and abroad--and for some no end in sight--young Catherine Joor can't wait for this November.

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October 22, 2008

"I've been looking forward to being able to vote for a very long time," Joor said.

But a funny thing happened to the high school senior as she made her way to the ballot box.

Harris County officials told her something she found shocking.

"I wasn't old enough to vote," said Joor.

Greenblatt: "How old are you going to be on Election Day?"

Joor: "18"

Greenblatt: "And yet they still rejected you because you weren't old enough?"

Joor: "Mmhm"

Greenblatt: "In their eyes?"

Joor: "Yes."

Greenblatt: "Does that make any sense?"

Joor: "Nope."

The daughter of two lawyers began her own campaign against the County Registrar.

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She called them repeatedly.

"I argued with them and I asked them to check it again," Joor said.

The calls kept going.

"She said stay on the line and no one came back," she said. "This is a democracy and it should be easy for someone to do what they're allowed to."

The Republican voter registrar for Harris County said that it was just a mistake.

But many Democrats and others said it's all part of a bigger trend to keep new voters off the rolls. They said research is showing that this year a new voter in Harris County is more likely to vote Democrat.

Whichever side you believe, the 11 News Defenders have discovered real problems are blocking qualified Americans from registering to vote.

"I'm shocked this is going on," said Frances Graham who is with Houston Votes.

Voting is a serious matter for Graham.

"My family has been in Texas since 1840. Many of them fought in the American Revolution," she said.

So this year, Graham worked with the registration organization Houston Votes. The former certified public accountant registered more than 130 new voters.

But she noticed a trend.

"A lot of the people that I had registered are being rejected," said Graham.

Graham then noticed another important detail.

"They're being rejected even though the application is very clear, and they had filled it out very legibly and they'd done a good job," she explained.

Brothers Amir, Navid, and Omid Kamali registered separately, yet each got rejected by Harris County. The county claimed the brothers didn't give proper ID or the last four digits of their social security numbers.

But Graham said that isn't so.

Greenblatt: "So they do everything right?"

Graham: "They do everything right."

Greenblatt: "Yet they're still getting rejected?"

Graham: "They're still getting rejected."

And the Kamali brothers weren't alone. Potential voters like Ian Meyer, Cathy Sotello, Donna Wiley and more than 30 others were all rejected for mistakes they apparently did not make. The same thing happened to one out of three voters Graham registered.

"It makes me very angry," Graham said.

But Graham isn't the only that noticed the trouble.

"There is a problem in Harris County," elections expert Lauri Van Hoose said.

Van Hoose was appointed to a state advisory committee on voting. She has testified for both Democratic and Republican backed legislation.

"People register to vote and they're not being put on the rolls," the elections expert said.

Van Hoose said that in Harris County there are "a high number of people being rejected due to inconsistent practices of reviewing applications."

Van Hoose knows this because she reviewed registration records from the tax assessor's office.

Thursday, the 11 News Defenders investigation heats up as Democrats and Republicans face off over what they've found.

Greenblatt: "These aren't just numbers you're coming up with on your own?"

Van Hoose: "Right."

Greenblatt: "These are numbers based off his information?"

Van Hoose: "Right."

Van Hoose's conclusion is that the problem is bigger than we think.

"This is not one or two registrations," she said. "This is thousands of registrations."

But on top of it,she found the county was in no rush to tell would-be voters they were 'no good.'

Ana Martinez registered to vote in August, but the county didn't send Martinez a letter until 42 days later. She received the letter in October, just three days before the final registration deadline. State law gives seven days to notify a citizen of a rejection giving time to appeal.

Van Hoose passed her findings onto the non-partisan statewide League of Women Voters.

"Some people who tried to do this in July are just now hearing that their form is being rejected, and now its too late," state board member Mary Finch said. She adds, "Putting roadblocks up in front of people, it's not good"

Ultimately, Finch has come up with a conclusion for the voting troubles in Harris County.

"The problem is competence or actual election fraud," said Finch.

11 News Defenders to Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt.

Greenblatt: "She almost didn't get a chance to vote."

Bettencourt: "Mark, that is a supposition on your part."

What about the many cases 11 News Defenders found?

Greenblatt: "Why don't you check for typos before you send that rejection letter? Why don't you check on your own first?"

Bettencourt: "We do our best OK. Of course they're going to miss one. This is one out of 1.9 million registered cases."

Bettencourt calls them "mistakes."

Greenblatt: "No it's not! We're talking about a number of cases here."

Bettencourt: "No, Mark."

Greenblatt: "You keep saying it's one. But one, plus one, plus one, plus one?"

Bettencourt: "Sure it's twenty five. Twenty five out of 1.9 million."

But what about comments from the state office of the League of Women Voters that Harris County had serious and widespread voter registration problems?

"My response is we have a fantastic working relationship with the local League of Women Voters. They do not support anything the statewide league says about this office," Bettencourt said.

Laura Blackburn, the president of the local League office, said while the group does have a good relationship with the Assessor, Bettencourt is wrong about a disagreement between her office and the state League office.

With regard to League Board Member Finch's comments about voter registration in Harris County, Blackburn said that Finch was "extremely knowledgeable" and "extremely careful." She also said that rather than doubting their credibility, the two offices were in agreement on local voter registration problems.

"The statewide office and our office are extremely careful about our research work," said Blackburn.

And in the end, Bettencourt reinstated many of the disenfranchised voters we shared with him, including Catherine Joor.

Greenblatt: "Catherine got a rejection letter. She doesn't understand why."

Bettencourt: "Mark this is real simple; this is a mistake by a temporary employee that no longer works at the tax office. We'll apologize to her now."

Bettencourt said that lately his office registers as many as 100,000 voter cards a week and hence, the reason for some of the errors 11 News Defenders found.

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