Harris County (Texas) Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners said Monday that he would not
purge from the voter roll before the November election any of the 9,018
citizens who received letters from his office in recent days notifying them
that they may be dead and are at risk of having their registrations canceled.
However, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, the office that generated the statewide list of about 80,000 voters, said Sumners' move contradicts legislative directives.
"Our office has federal and state requirements to maintain an accurate and secure voter registration list. If any of those people are deceased, the law requires that they be removed from the voter registration list," Rich Parsons said. "Mr. Sumners' decision would prevent that."
The letters, many of which were delivered Friday and Saturday, asked recipients to verify within 30 days that they are alive or be cut from the roll.
Sumners, who also is the county's voter registrar, said conversations with the Secretary of State's Office convinced him the list of possible dead was too unreliable to act on until after the Nov. 6 election.
"We're not even going to process any of the cancellations until after the election," Sumners said. "Because we've gotten such a response from people that say that they are still alive."
Even if voters are wrongly deleted from the roll as a result of this purge, Parsons said, they still would be able to cast ballots on Election Day.
Sumners said his office received about 300 complaints from presumed dead voters Monday. Travis County mailed 2,200 letters and has received about 100 calls, said Dee Lopez, director of voter registration for the Travis County Tax Office.
House Bill 174, passed last year, required the secretary of state to purge possibly dead voters quarterly using data from the Social Security Administration, Parsons said; the office long has used similar data from the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
"The process is nothing new," he said. "What's new is the use of the Social Security Administration's death master file. The Social Security Administration, as I understand it, had made clear to our office that they don't guarantee or provide any assurance of the accuracy of their list."
The Secretary of State's Office and local tax offices regularly purge dead voters from the rolls, based on information from several sources. In some cases, the voter's birth date, name, or other identifying data is considered a strong enough match to death records to remove the voter from the roll automatically; when the match is weaker, the voter is sent a letter giving him an opportunity to prove he is alive. Last week's batch mailing was unusually large, local and state officials said.
Stephanie Harris, 52, received notice of her apparent death on Saturday, as did her father, she said. She got a new voter registration card in January, renewed her driver's license last month and has lived in the same house for 11 years, she said.
"I've been voting since I was 18 years old. I've never, ever received anything like this," Harris said. "Why now? Why are you sending this now, right before it's time to vote?"
The secretary of state's intent, Parsons said, was to send the first letters after the primary election, but that was pushed back from March to May 29, making this the earliest suitable time.
Feeling 'singled out'
"I got that (voting) card before I got my driver's license," said Terri Collins, 53, who said she got her new voter registration card shortly before her letter arrived on Friday. "It's very important to me. They need to check into it and revamp it. Because it appears as if it's something tricky going on."
Sumners acknowledged this is "a sensitive issue," noting that many voters of all stripes calling his office have alleged discrimination.
The Houston Baptist Ministers Association is working to identify members who received the letters and to connect them with a voter registrar at the church, said Marvin Franklin of Mount Hebron Missionary Baptist Church. So far, four people from his congregation have received letters, all at least 80 years old.
"One might've been a mistake," Franklin said. "We feel like our community is being singled out. This letter didn't go out in River Oaks to the senior citizens in that area."
County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said three of 10 volunteers at a Monday staff meeting received letters; party press secretary Jenard Jenkins said "we hope this isn't another back-door attempt at voter suppression." County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, however, said his party also has heard from at least two voters who have received letters.
Parsons sought to calm such reactions.
"The last thing we want to do is see some canceled inadvertently or inappropriately. Our intent is maintaining or protecting a voter's right," he said. "We would also encourage anyone who gets these letters to think about contacting the Social Security Administration, because that's where we're getting this information from."
Jayme Fraser contributed to this report.
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