Politics
1:20 pm
Wed September 12, 2012

Concerns Raised After Living Voters Flagged as Dead

Travis County resident Michael Moore isn’t dead. And he doesn’t know why he has to prove it to be able to vote.

Moore received one of about 82,000 letters recently mailed out by elections officials asking recipients to verify their voter status and prove they are not deceased, the result of a little-known House bill passed last year by the Legislature.

House Bill 174, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, requires the Texas secretary of state’s office to access the Social Security Administration’s death master file to check for deceased or possibly deceased registered voters and purge them from voter rolls.

The state has done this for years, utilizing information and statistics from the state’s Vital Statistics Unit to maintain clean voter roles, said Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the secretary of state.

The only thing that’s different is that the state is accessing the Social Security Administration’s death master file, he said. “This is the first time we’ve done this, and the law requires us to do it quarterly.”

But Moore wants to know why he was sent the letter in the first place.

“What I wanted to find out from [the state] and have yet to find out is what was the basis of the match,” Moore told The Texas Tribune.

Parsons did not speculate as to what information the SSA uses to classify someone as deceased or potentially deceased.

Sarah Schultz-Lackey, a spokeswoman for the SSA’s Dallas regional offices, said the agency has about 93 million records in the database and uses a variety of sources to compile the list. They include family members and funeral homes; state and federal agencies including Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration; and various financial institutions and internal sources, she said.

So because there is such a wide variety of reporters, there is certainly occasionally an error,” she said.

Moore was also concerned because although he was able to verify that he is in fact alive by calling Travis County and saying as much, other voters will probably be confused by the new mandate.

“My concern is that it seemed to be like this was just a fishing expedition. It’s a pretty confusing letter and form,” he said. Specifically, he cites language on the form, titled “Response to Notice of Examination,” asking the Travis County voter to “satisfy the grounds of the challenge by checking the same blank on the response as checked on the Notice of Examination.”

“Which is the notice of examination? There is no notice of examination,” he said.

But Parsons said the new practice would not knock any registered and legal voter from the rolls.

“Because the SSA will not guarantee or assure the accuracy of its list, none of these matches will trigger automatic cancellations,” he said. If the letter accompanying the “Response to Notice of Examination” is sent back within 30 days, the matter is resolved, Parsons said. Even if the 30-day time-period lapses, he said, voters can take the signed letter and a photo ID proving their identity to the polls and they will be reinstated immediately.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has written Secretary of State Esperanza “Hope” Andrade, asking her office to clarify a number of issues, including why the state relies on the data if it is unreliable and why the state waited until two months before the elections to purge the rolls.

"Given the fact that we are less than two months away from election day and less than a month away from the registration deadline, I ask that you respond in writing as soon as possible," he wrote. "If a process upon which you are relying to purge voters this close to the election is shown to be flawed, I urge you to do whatever possible to protect Texas voters' franchise.  Our state and our voters deserve no less."

Unlike the state's contentious voter ID measure, which was rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice and a federal district court, the Texas House passed HB 174 by a 143-1 vote, and the Senate passed it unanimously. It was also precleared by the Justice Department.

Schultz-Lackey conceded the issue was controversial but added that the death master list was created in 1980 and has been used to verify data on local and regional voter rolls across the country.