By Maresa Strano
AUSTIN, Texas: On May 25, 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a bill modifying the procedure for updating the state’s list of eligible and registered voters. Effective September 1, 2011, House Bill 174 expanded the secretary of state‘s role as state elections manager, requiring him or her to perform quarterly purges of the voter rolls based on information provided by the Social Security Administration.
Although cleaning up the voter rolls is standard practice for any elections office, the bill introduced a new source for weeding out deceased voters with the federal agency’s master list, and the change has been met with unease by a host of Democratic legislators and elections officials who are skeptical that there is not enough time before the general election to confirm whether each of the 77,000 flagged decedents reported by secretary of state’s office in August are in fact dead. There are 13.1 million registered voters in Texas, and county election officials are concerned about the opportunity for errors and wrongful removal of voters portended by such a high volume and short time span. October 9th is the deadline for possibly dead voters to respond to letters sent by their counties’ elections offices requesting status confirmation; It is also the deadline for voter registration.
“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,” state senator Rodney Ellis (D) weighed in.
The concerns sparked a lawsuit, filed in an Austin state court last week, arguing that the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act and that secretary of state Hope Andrade “exceeded her authority” in the purging process by targeting voters whose social security number and/or names match up only partially to death records, classified as “weak-matches.”
To the chagrin of the law’s supporters, a state district judge sympathized with plaintiffs and temporarily blocked the secretary of state from ordering counties to remove flagged names from their lists. Two of the more prominent supporters of the more stringent voter check requirements, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Rep. Phil King, both Republicans, believe the law’s objective is sound and the judge’s order ought to be thrown out so the county officials can proceed on schedule with their investigation, which was already underway when the judge issued the temporary restraining order.
The appeal hearing is scheduled for October 4th. If the panel of three federal judges declines to lift the restraining order, it will remain in place through election day. If the court restores the law’s enforcement, come election day, eligible, living voters who discover they had been stricken from the list will not be disqualified from participating in the election altogether. They may cast a provisional ballot, which can be counted, pending verification of their identity by election authorities.