Disability group threatens to sue Texas over voter registration policy


Highlights

Claim: Texas is breaking federal law by not offering voter registration help to Texans with disabilities.

Texas Workforce Commission took over job training in 2016 but didn’t offer registration help.

Disability rights advocates have accused state officials of violating federal law by declining to help Texans with disabilities register to vote when they receive job training from the state.

Unless that policy changes, the state will be sued to force compliance with the law, lawyers for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities said in a warning letter sent Monday afternoon to the Texas Workforce Commission and Secretary of State Rolando Pablos.

“The state’s own data indicate that at least 74,000 voting-age Texans with disabilities are not being offered voter registration services each year, and that number is likely closer to 100,000,” the letter said.

According to the lawyers, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires state agencies that help people with disabilities to also offer help with registering to vote or updating voter registration information.

That registration aid was offered when job training was being provided by the state Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, but when the agency was phased out in 2016, the Legislature transferred vocational training to the Texas Workforce Commission.

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The workforce agency, however, decided that the registration requirement did not apply — a change announced in a 2016 policy manual without providing “further explanation or any obvious, valid reason,” the letter said.

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said he was surprised the commission declined to provide voter registration help, saying it’s a relatively easy way to ensure that Texans with disabilities can “fully participate in voting, just like every other segment of our society.”

“Voting’s extremely important to the disability community — it is certainly a way to influence who gets elected to office, and it’s a way to get your issues heard and discussed during elections,” he said.

In the year that ended Sept. 1, Texas provided job training services to 102,852 adult Texans with disabilities, most of whom should also have received help with voter registration, according to the letter.

Borel said his organization’s partners at Disability Rights Texas had previously approached the Workforce Commission about reinstating the voter registration program but “were not responded to in any meaningful way.”

Lisa Givens, spokeswoman for the Workforce Commission, said officials were reviewing the letter Monday and “will respond appropriately” in the future.

Monday’s letter — written by lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project, Disability Rights Texas and the Austin law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright — asked for a chance to meet with state officials to help develop a “comprehensive plan for full compliance.”

If refused, the lawyers threatened to sue Texas, saying the letter is a warning of pending litigation, as required by federal law.



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