FORT WORTH -- Nine people in Tarrant County live communally in a 539,000-square foot cinderblock compound owned by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration, if their voter registrations are to be believed.
It is the DEA's presence at Alliance Airport at 2300 Horizon Drive and it is most certainly not a residence.
Still, at least three of the nine, who registered to vote in a period between February 2002 and August of last year, cast ballots in 2008 despite the fact that property listings suggest they live in other parts and precincts of Tarrant and, in one case, neighboring Denton County.
They vote in precinct 3417 and can affect the winners and losers in state representative, city council, county commissioner, county constables and a number of other races. Even as they live in another precinct with different ballot choices.
The potential for such registrations to affect elections is substantial.
State Rep. Vicki Truitt, for example, is in the middle of a rather rough primary for the seat she has held since 1998. Her District 98 takes a ‘U’ shape in the northern part of the county, a district in which a precinct 3417 voter can cast a ballot. So the voters registered to Horizon Drive may vote in this contest, even if they work in precinct 3417 but live elsewhere.
Texas' residency rules also open the door to vote-stacking malfeasance. A business owner or law firm could curry favor with a candidate via a vow to have a number of employees use that business as a voting address, then ask those employees to vote a certain way on an issue that would benefit the candidate and, by extension, the business owner.
VACANT LAND USED AS RESIDENCE; LEGAL CHALLENGES RARE
Texas law defines a residence for voting purposes broadly.
“It’s the way the law is written, and the only way it would be changed is through the legislature,” said Steve Raborn, Tarrant County’s elections administrator.
The residency requirement can be determined “by the voter,” said Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State's office.
“And yes, a work address is OK if they consider that their residence."
Dillard cites a section of the state’s code regarding residency:
"'Residence' means domicile, that is, one's home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.”
Dillard said if someone feels a voter is using an improper address, it can be challenged through a complaint to election officials and ultimately wind up in court. But it rarely happens.
Nationally, the matching of legitimate residential addresses and possibly erroneous ones is "all over the landscape," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials.
"In some states, it is OK as long as it is a physical address that can be delivered to," Lewis said, "Some don't even try to pin it down to a physical residence."
Last year, a Tarrant County voter used a vacant piece of land as his residence on the voter rolls, Raborn said. An aggrieved political loser threatened legal action but never followed through.
“The fact is, any registered voter can challenge the voting status of another voter,” Raborn said. “But it generally doesn’t do any good.”
In many states, a voter’s address is changed at the same time he or she changes a driver’s license address. But Texas has a more liberal policy when it comes to such changes.
One of the nine voters registered at the DEA office said she and her husband used that address when they first came back to the U.S. after living overseas.
“We didn’t have a stable address, but we wanted to vote,” she said. Her husband works at 2300 Horizon, and while she understands they need to change their voting address, “we’ll do it before we vote in the general election in November.”
She said neither of them will vote in the March 2 primary.
Although they could, even though they don’t even reside in Tarrant County and haven't for several months.
“This is something that needs to be looked at,” said State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton who was an active supporter of last session’s failed voter ID bill at the statehouse.
He added that any time there is an issue regarding voter access, the tendency is for politicization, which often hampers any change at all.
“This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and I hope it doesn’t get politicized if anyone tries,” Bonnen said.
Contact Steve Miller at email@example.com or 832-303-9420.
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