'Potentially Deceased' Voters Can no Longer be Purged from Texas Rolls

Texas voters can no longer be automatically removed from voting rolls based on incomplete government records indicating that they might be dead, according to a legal settlement.
by , | October 4, 2012

Texas voters can no longer be automatically removed from voting rolls based on incomplete government records indicating that they might be dead, according to a legal settlement reached Wednesday.

The settlement ends a lawsuit by four living voters who were warned last month that their voter registrations would be canceled if they didn't prove within 30 days that they were alive.

Their lawsuit challenged rules, adopted by Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade, that directed county voting officials to send letters to about 80,000 voters identified as "potentially deceased" by federal records. About 68,000 of the letters, however, were based on what Andrade called "weak matches" _ targeting, for example, voters whose birth date and last four digits of their Social Security number matched federal death records.

Under the settlement, the burden of proof will shift from voters to county voter registrars, who will have to investigate each weak match to verify that the voter is dead before a registration can be canceled.

"No one is going to get purged just because they don't respond to a letter," said David Richards, a lawyer for the four voters who had argued that Andrade's rules endangered voting rights and could potentially disrupt the Nov. 6 election.

"This was an unreliable matching program, and it was causing confusion," Richards said. "We hope that this will allay the confusion and that the process can go forward without all this furor."

Andrade's office sent new directives Wednesday telling county voting officials that they "are expected to conduct an independent review of 'weak' matches to determine whether a voter is appropriately on the voter rolls." Beyond noting that the review should be conducted as quickly as possible, the directions gave no time limit for completing the task.

State policy was unchanged on strong matches, when voter names, birth dates and complete Social Security numbers match death records. The lawsuit didn't challenge voters being purged based on strong matches.

Andrade said the settlement amounts to a minimal change in procedures that were intended to comply with a 2011 state law requiring her office to better maintain voter rolls by accessing Social Security Administration death records.

"This process has never precluded counties from taking the time local officials deem necessary to confirm a voter's status," she said. "We are pleased to put this matter behind us and move forward in this process." But Richards and Buck Wood, lawyers for the four voters, argued that Andrade had exceeded her authority by pursuing a voter purge based on weak matches that led to many "false positives" among living voters. The procedure, they said, jeopardized the voting rights of letter recipients who couldn't respond within the 30-day deadline.

On Sept. 20, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak issued the temporary restraining order barring election officials from canceling the registrations of "potentially deceased" voters who didn't respond to the letters.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott opposed the restraining order, arguing that the voters didn't have standing to sue because they hadn't been harmed by Andrade's rules.

The settlement, reached with lawyers for Abbott, canceled a hearing set for Thursday that was to determine whether Sulak's restraining order should be made permanent.

Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis praised the settlement. "Last month, thousands of voters across Texas opened their mailbox to learn that they might be dead," he said. "If a process upon which you are relying to purge voters this close to the election is shown to be flawed, you have to start over."

(c)2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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