Texas voter rolls purge hits a snag

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramSeptember 24, 2012 

The goal was simple: clean up Texas voter rolls.

But just months before the general election, the names of around 77,000 Texans landed on a statewide list that suggests they may be dead and should be removed from voter rolls.

Voters statewide, including several dozen in Tarrant County, are letting election officials know they are alive and well and plan to vote Nov. 6.

"There was a concern that the death records weren't being cross-checked by anyone against the voter registration rolls," said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, one of several co-sponsors of the state law that prompted election officials to create the statewide list. "The objective is worthy: to make sure that when anyone passes away, their names are removed from voter rolls."

Those plans to purge voting rolls before the election may be up in the air, however, since a state district judge last week temporarily blocked Texas' secretary of state from ordering counties to remove names of deceased Texans from their lists.

A hearing on the case is set for early next month, but county election officials statewide have already sent thousands of letters to Texans to determine whether voters believed to be deceased actually are no longer alive.

This and several other bills were adopted last year as Republicans said it was time to crack down on and prevent voter fraud. State leaders have said there have been around 50 voter fraud convictions in Texas in the past decade. Democrats say efforts to fight a small problem will end up discriminating against minority voters and making it harder for some Texans to make it to the polls.

A voter ID measure requiring photo identification to vote also passed the Legislature last year but has been rejected by federal officials as too far-reaching and suppressing minority voters.

As for updating the master voter registration list, the overall process has generated mixed reactions from some legislators who have mixed opinions on how the state's efforts should proceed.

"We are too close to Election Day to try to rush through a purge that likely will cost many Texans their opportunity to vote," state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wrote in a recent op-ed column. "In the name of fairness and efficiency, we should call a timeout until Jan. 1 and ask the Secretary of State to work with the legislature and counties to ensure the cleanup is done in the most efficient, fair and transparent way, long before any elections take place so as to eliminate the appearance of political games."

King said not much has to be done to fix the system.

"This isn't a huge problem," he said. "At most, it's a minor inconvenience for any voter. We may just need to tweak the process."

Election offices in Texas constantly update voter lists and send updates to the state.

But last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 174, requiring the secretary of state to remove deceased Texans from voter rolls quarterly using information provided by a different source -- the Social Security Administration's master list -- rather than data provided by the Bureau of Vital Statistics, which many county election offices traditionally use.

"There's nothing new about us removing people from the list," Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said. "It's just a different source of information."

As a result, the secretary of state's office sent lists in late August to county election offices identifying nearly 77,000 possibly deceased voters out of 13.1 million registered voters.

The list included both "strong matches" -- registered voters whose name, date of birth and full Social Security number match those of a deceased Texan -- as well as "weak matches" -- where voters have the same date of birth and last four Social Security digits as a dead person.

Each election office was responsible for double-checking lists and determining which residents should receive "verification of voter status" letters. The letters name a potentially deceased voter and ask for a response within 30 days if the information is incorrect. Most counties sent letters this month.

Election officials are expected to remove from the rolls those whose relatives have confirmed are dead and keep on the rolls those who have responded that they are alive. As for those for whom no response is received, who would have been automatically removed from the list after 30 days, that issue may be left up to the court.

In Tarrant County, about 4,000 voters of 945,995 registered voters were on the list from the secretary of state, Raborn said.

Local election workers spent weeks sifting through the information by hand, trying to match names on the list to other lists that had names of those who had likely died. After reviewing that data, the office sent about 1,800 letters to local residents, Raborn said.

"They gave us the matching criteria so we could make some kind of analysis out of it all and figure out who to send a letter to," Raborn said. "I'm hoping the vast number of letters we sent are to truly deceased people."

So far, more responses in Tarrant County have verified that voters are dead.

Raborn said 97 responses have confirmed that specific voters have died and 70 letters confirmed that voters have not.

If any voters have received a letter and have not responded, Raborn urges them to contact his office soon.

"Mistakes happen," he said. "You can cancel the wrong person based on criteria you get. Even on information you get from probate courts, there might be someone registered to vote who uses a different first name, married name, maiden name. I've seen instances where two people are using the same Social Security number.

"They should contact us to let us know."

Even if voters are wrongly moved from the list, they may still cast a provisional ballot that will be counted once election officials confirm their identity.

Raborn said he learned late last week that some calls are going to voters elsewhere in the state asking for personal information -- date of birth or driver's license or Social Security numbers.

He said such calls are likely scams because election officials don't ask for personal information on the phone. He recommended that people not provide such information on the phone.

"The only way we reach out to voters is through the mail," he said.

Problems with voter rolls occurred elsewhere, including the Houston area, where more than 9,000 letters were sent and so far several hundred people responded that they are alive and want to vote.

Harris County election officials have said they sent letters to "weak" matches and received a large outcry, prompting them to say they won't purge the voter rolls before the election.

State officials temporarily withheld the county's voter registration funds until officials there agreed to keep sending letters to "strong" matches.

And Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole has said she won't purge voter rolls until after the November election because there's not enough time to verify who's dead and who isn't.

Four Texans sued last week in an Austin state court, saying the purge of voter lists violates state and federal election laws and could affect Texans who want to vote in November.

They said those who might not be able to respond in 30 days would have their voting rights compromised.

State District Judge Tim Sulak issued a temporary restraining order, preventing state election officials from ordering counties to remove the names of "weak match" Texans from the voting list. The ruling doesn't prevent letters from still being sent to Texans on the "strong match" list. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 4.

Secretary of state officials say they don't comment on pending litigation. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has asked the judge to throw out the restraining order and let election officials continue their work.

Raborn said he's not sure how the court actions will affect local efforts to update voter rolls. "We are going to have to wait and see," he said.

Either way, election officials face a time crunch no matter how that situation is resolved.

The deadline for most of the affected voters to return forms saying they are alive falls shortly before Oct. 9, which is the voter registration deadline. That is generally a busy time for election officials because not only are new voters registering, but also current voters are making address and name changes.

State election officials have said updating the lists is something that simply has to be done.

"We have an obligation to maintain clean voter registration lists," Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said last week before the restraining order was issued. "Counties have an obligation to maintain clean voter registration lists. This process works best when we all work together to meet that mandate."

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