When Rep. Chris Turner received reports that a conservative political action committee was approaching people outside of a state driver’s license office in Hurst, he went to see for himself.
“I was surprised, and I didn’t see how that would be permissible,” said Turner, of Grand Prairie.
Outside of the Hurst office were two people with Engage Texas, a recently formed super PAC that aims to register Republican voters “to keep Texas red,” according to its website. According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, the group raised roughly $9.6 million by the end of June, and because of its status is able to raise unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations and other groups.
“They had a big tent set up right outside the office,” said Turner, who is also the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “And they were standing at the front door of the building and opening the door for people as they were coming in and walking out.”
And they had a question for passers-by, Turner said: “Would you like to sign our petition about abortion?”
If people were interested in the petition to “ban late-term abortion,” they were asked to fill out a survey and provide personal info. Then, they were asked if they were registered to vote, Turner said.
Workers at the Hurst and Fort Worth offices Turner visited told him they received permission from the Texas Department of Public Safety. DPS oversees Texas’ driver’s license offices, where people can already register to vote while renewing their driver’s license.
“I think that taxpayers have the right to expect that their tax dollars are not essentially subsidizing political activity,” Turner said. “And when a political organization, such as Engage Texas, is utilizing government property to collect voter information, and using the built-in crowd at the DPS offices, I think that is problematic.”
Turner sent a letter to DPS Director Steve McCraw on Tuesday morning, asking for clarification on what policies govern political activity on state property, and any documentation on how Engage Texas was approved to conduct its petitions.
In a statement Tuesday, DPS said areas outside driver’s license offices are public spaces and can be used for political activities.
“So long as individuals or groups do not interfere with department operations, driver license office staff are advised that individuals and groups are allowed to peacefully utilize the public spaces outside driver license offices,” DPS said in a statement. “The department does not engage in any process of granting or denying permission to individuals or groups seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.”
That was news to Turner, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Forth Worth, who said she also received complaints as early as last week.
Collier said she received a call on Thursday from an elderly constituent who thought it was peculiar that people in line at a Fort Worth driver’s license office were being asked about preserving gun rights.
The constituent thought the people surveying those in line were with DPS, and was concerned the agency might misuse her personal information.
“It needs to be very clear that this is not a state function or a state-supported organization or project,” Collier said. “It looks like they are supporting or promoting the ideas of this organization. It certainly doesn’t look like they’re opposing it by allowing them on that property.”
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Engage Texas, declined to answer specific questions about the group’s efforts and said that because “canvassers discuss a variety of topics across the state,” she could not confirm topics raised at specific locations. In a statement, Nashed said that permission is always sought.
“Engage Texas’ efforts to register, educate and turn out Texas voters are free speech,” Nashed said. “Engage Texas secures permission before going to any location, including any public space such as government property or college campuses, and follows specific guidelines outlined by each location.”
It’s unclear how many locations Engage Texas has set up at across the state.
Turner said Engage Texas workers said they are also in the Dallas, Austin and Houston areas.
Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said a friend who went to a Georgetown office was approached by Engage Texas.
“I can understand that DPS would say yes to a civic group, a nonpartisan group,” Israel said. “I just don’t understand why DPS would allow this kind of a group to have a presence. This is a concern.”
According to the Houston Chronicle, Engage Texas workers were also stationed Tuesday outside of a Houston driver’s license mega center.
“My sense is that they’re in urban and suburban areas where the most competitive legislative and congressional districts are located,” Turner said.