Texas Court Halts State Attempt to Purge Voters as Dead
By Kelley Shannon, Margaret Cronin Fisk and Laurel Calkins – Sep 20, 2012 12:01 AM ET
Texas officials were temporarily barred by a state judge from ordering county election officials to purge presumably dead voters from registration rolls because the initiative may violate the election code.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed yesterday by four Texas voters who were told they would be purg
ed from voter-registration lists as deceased. They asked state court Judge Tim Sulak in Austin to stop the state from striking about 77,000 names from the rolls, arguing the plan violates the Texas election code and the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
The secretary of state is “restrained from further instructing the counties to remove any other names from the voter rolls,” Sulak said in his order. “Plaintiffs are entitled to temporary injunctive relief.”
Lawyers for the voters contended the state was required to get pre-approval for rules changes under the federal Voting Rights Act. The law mandates that Texas and other jurisdictions subject to the act get pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department or a special three-judge panel to alter electoral procedures.
“There is no statutory authority for this purge,” civil rights lawyer David Richards, who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview while waiting for the judge to rule.
Sulak, a Democrat, based his ruling only on possible violations of the election code. He said he would set another hearing in two weeks.
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney GeneralGreg Abbott, a Republican, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the injunction, which was handed down after regular business hours yesterday. Tiffany Seward, a spokeswoman for Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Tina Morton, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the ruling.
The lawsuit is among multiple court battles over voting rules, particularly in so-called swing states including Florida,Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see possible victories.
Voter cases are also under way in Alabama, South Carolinaand Tennessee. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court set aside for further review a ruling allowing the state to enforce a law requiring voters to have photo identification, which theAmerican Civil Liberties Union has argued was aimed at keeping likely Democratic voters away from the polls.
Lawsuits filed over Florida voting rules include at least two challenging a law ostensibly designed to purge noncitizens from voter lists, which opponents say would disenfranchise new citizens as well.
A federal judge last month blocked implementation of a new Florida law restricting voter-registration activities. A different federal judge in Florida yesterday heard arguments challenging the state’s 2011 law cutting back early voting days as biased against black voters.
Support for voter purges often falls along party lines, said Rick Hasen, law professor at the University of California’sIrvine School of Law.
Republicans are pursuing the purges of voter rolls because they “believe the biggest problem is voter fraud,” Hasen, an election law expert, said in a phone interview. “They believe that not having dead people on the rolls will discourage fraud.”
“Democrats are resisting the move, because they see it as a way of removing people who aren’t regular voters from the rolls,” Hasen said. “These voters are more likely to be Democratic.”
Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade, a Republican, reached a separate compromise yesterday to resolve a dispute with election officials in Harris County, which includes Houston. The state cut off the county’s elections funds last week to force compliance with the dead-voter purge, and Harris County election officials had threatened to sue to restore funding.
Harris County Voter Registrar Don Sumners refused to cancel registrations for about 10,000 “possibly deceased” people on the rolls that Andrade had identified in August by cross-matching state voter rosters with the U.S. Social Security Administration’s master death list.
Sumners said the Social Security database is unreliable and produces too many false matches. Sumners said hundreds of voters contacted his office to refute their deaths, after getting notices their voter registrations would be canceled based on the state’s dead-voter list.
Sumners said yesterday that Andrade agreed to restore the county’s election funds after he agreed to purge voters whose families confirm their deaths before the election. He said the county will wait until after the election to investigate about 10 percent of the remaining names, all of which are strong matches with the Social Security death list. No action will be taken on the rest of the presumed-dead voters who were considered weak matches with the national database.
Opponents of the Texas purge are most concerned by efforts to remove voters who are weak matches to the master death list, Buck Wood, a lawyer for the voters suing in Austin, said after yesterday’s hearing.
When all nine Social Security numbers, the last name and birth date are the same on the two lists, that is considered a strong match, Wood said. Comparing only a birth date and the last four digits of a Social Security number would make for a weak match, he said.
When voters get these notices, they ask, “What the hell is going on?” Wood said.
Erika Kane, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s office, asked the judge if the state would have to retract prior e-mails.
“How do we address this concern without causing mass confusion to the public?” she asked.
“I’m not telling you to pull down what’s already gone out,” Kulak said. He said he would order there be no further instruction to pull voters from the rolls based on weak matches.
He also barred the secretary of state from ordering county officials to remove from the rolls any voters who failed to“timely comply” with the notices sent out based on non-responses to weak matches.
The case is Moore v. Morton, D-1-6N-12-002923, District Court, Travis County, Texas (Austin).
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