Sorting out the facts involving Texas' dead voter "purge"

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on September 11, 2012 at 6:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 11 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Some 600,000 names represent Travis County's voting roll, and who's on the list is the target of the latest round of election inspection.

Passed virtually unanimously during the 82nd Texas Legislature in 2011, HB 174 requires the state to verify its voter rolls against the U.S. Social Security Administration's Death Master File.

"In addition to comparing against the information submitted by local officials concerning deceased persons, the Secretary of State must also obtain death information quarterly from the United States Social Security Administration and compare against this information as well," states the bill's summary.

As a result, some voters have received letters saying some combination of their name and date of birth potentially match someone listed by the federal government as deceased, giving them 30 days to contact the county and avoid having their registration canceled.

"We've sent out 2,200 letters," said Travis County Voter Registration Director Dee Lopez. "We've received about 125 responses, either in person or by phone, and we've taken people off the list," Lopez says the 2,000-odd voters who have yet to respond haven't necessarily been laid to rest.

"We live in a high-mobile society," said Lopez. "It tells us that the voter may have moved and never received the letter. It tells us that the voter may have received the letter and said, 'You know what? I'm going to deal with it later,' like many of us do. Or it could be just the fact that they have moved from Travis County entirely."

A simple phone call to the number on the letter and verbal confirmation is all that's required as "proof of life." So what prevents someone who is actually dead from being on the rolls?

Texas has long relied on information from local and county offices, as well as the state Bureau of Vital Statistics, which is operated under the Department of State Health Services and provides regular updates on those who become deceased.

Like the data received from the Social Security Administration, matches are organized into "weak" and "strong" matches. A weak match may match a registered voter to a deceased person through a combination of names and date of birth. Typically, a notice of examination is then sent and the voter given 30 days to respond.

A "strong" match is able to link a registered voter to a deceased person definitely though a matching social security number or driver's license. Once a strong match is made, the voter's registration is automatically canceled and their name removed from the voting rolls.

"The data from the Bureau of Vital Statistics comes in about every seven to 10 days and that matching takes place, and any notices would go out," said Rich Parsons, spokesperson for Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade. "What's new is not the process. What's new is the Social Security Death Master File being used in this process. That's the only thing new."

The Secretary of State's Office is tasked with implementing the changes in law passed by the legislature, and Parsons says executing HB 174 met some unanticipated difficulties.

"The Social Security Administration has made clear to us they make no guarantee as to the accuracy of their file, of their list," said Parsons. "We want to make sure we protect each and every voter's right to vote, so we're not going to cancel any voter automatically if they trigger a strong or weak match. They're all going to get a verification letter that gives them 30 days to verify their status and maintain their voter registration."

The office originally planned to deliver the first round of matching data between the state primary and the general election, but the battle over redistricting that drove the state primary further into the year caused that window to narrow to a timeframe in which some are uncomfortable.

"Is this the first set of letters sent out to supposedly deceased voters under the requirements of the bill? If so, why did it take a full year to implement H.B. 174? I find it quite alarming that the first effort to purge voters comes a mere two months before the general election," State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) wrote in a letter addressed to Andrade's office Tuesday. Ellis was among those who voted to approve the bill in 2011.

Texas has 13 million registered voters, and the first check against the death master file turned back 80,000 potential matches statewide. The Secretary of State's office forwarded the matches to the counties in which they were found, and it's up to county election officials to verify.

In Williamson County, 839 potential matches were reported to election officials, who in turn sent out 263 letters to matches they weren't able to immediately resolve. In Hays County, less than 50 letters were sent out, and both counties report that, so far, they've received responses from just a handful. According to Lopez, reactions have been varied.

"We've had people call to say, 'I've been living at the same address 11 years, I vote two or three times a year in every election, why did you single me out?'" said Lopez. "The response to them is that there is different matching criteria."

So what if someone gets taken off the list and for whatever reason doesn't find out until Election Day?

"We don't want to disenfranchise anybody that's eligible to vote, and so if they do show up, we will confirm that that's the individual, and we will go ahead and reinstate them so that they can cast their ballot," Lopez confirmed.

Parsons says the same holds statewide. "At any time they can verify their status and be instantly reinstated as a registered voter up to and including Election Day at the polls."

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