AUSTIN (AP/CBSDFW.COM) — With the general election only weeks away, a Texas judge has temporarily blocked the state from ordering counties to strip their voter lists of names that belong to people the government thinks may be dead after thousands of letters were sent to voters telling them to confirm they are alive.
The Dallas County Elections Department mailed more than 800 letters, asking if the recipients were if they were dead and warning their voter registration could be cancelled if they did not reply.
A new state law requires that voter rolls be checked against the Social Security Administration’s death master file. The agency had flagged about 81,000 voters statewide who are potentially dead.
Some of those names can be confirmed to death records with an exact match of name, birth date and social security number, but others have only partial matches. Some county election officials, most notably in Harris County, sent letters to people on the partial-match list warning they could be purged unless they verified they were still alive.
Four living voters who received letters sued, claiming the effort could wrongly purge living voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. On Wednesday, State District Judge Tim Sulak in Austin barred the state from ordering counties to purge voters on the partial match list.
“This swept up all kinds of people,” said David Richards, the attorney for the voters who sued.
The judge’s ruling still allows letters to be sent to those who are considered strong matches to death records, Richards said. The temporary restraining order lasts 14 days before the issue gets a full hearing.
A spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, who oversees state elections, declined comment Thursday. The Texas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
State elections officials have said that even if someone was wrongly purged, they would not be turned away on Election Day and would be reinstated at the polls.
Texas has done similar purges in the past, relying on the state’s Vital Statistics Unit. The new wrinkle was using the federal data, which is known to have errors. That change was approved by state lawmakers in 2011.
The state sent counties two lists of “strong” and “weak” matches, and counties were supposed to check the lists to determine who was sent letters for confirmation. In Houston, Harris County officials sent about 9,000 letters to names on the “weak” list and hundreds went to living voters. State Democratic leaders complained it could disenfranchise eligible voters.
The state cut off Harris County’s voter registration funds when the county’s tax collector and voter registrar, Don Sumners, said he would not remove voters until after the Nov. 6 election. On Wednesday, hours before the judge’s ruling, the state agreed to restore funding if county officials sent letters only to names that are considered strong matches to death records.
(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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