Like all states, Texas regularly purges its rolls of voters who've died. Normally, this is a routine process where the Texas Secretary of State passes along to the counties a small list of voters who have recently died. County election officials then mail "death notification" letters to voters on the list. The letter tells voters they are presumed dead and have 30 days to notify election authorities, if they are, in fact, alive. Voters who have not died and fail to respond to the letter will have their voter registration canceled.
In the past, a small list of deceased voters is routinely generated as the Secretary of State's office matches new deaths recorded by the Texas Department of Vital Statistics with its statewide voter registration data base. A positive match of voters listed in the voter registration data base and people listed in other state and federal agency data bases can be made only when full social security number, first, last and middle names, plus name suffix, date of birth and address identity information completely match.
The list of deceased voters the Secretary of State sent to county election officials this month, just two months before the election, includes the names of nearly 80,000 voters.
About 90 percent of those on the Secretary of State's deceased voters list are probably still living because a only very limited match of identity information was made for 90 percent of the names.
Texas got the names off the Social Security Administration's death list. Social Security warned Texas that the list shouldn't be relied on, but to no avail. The state Legislature and Texas Gov. Rick Perry passed legislation last session mandating the change.
In Houston, after Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners got hundreds of calls from elderly voters who'd gotten the death notice, he looked at the Social Security list that was being used.
"And then a quick check of some of the information on that database led us to believe that there was a big probability that even a majority of the names on the list were people that were still alive," he says.
So Sumner announced that — in Houston at least — there would be no purge of voters until after the election. That did not please the secretary of state, who threatened Sumner with the loss of state funding unless Sumner purged his rolls. That threat went over poorly with the Houston registrar who made it publicly clear to the secretary of state that she could take her threats and ...
"Well I can't give you the exact words," Sumner says. "But basically that they were escalating this fight and they were picking on the wrong guy because I was not going to back down and they were going to lose the battle."
That's where it stands now. Houston is not going to purge its voter rolls until after the election. But the rest of the state will do so. Democrats are thinking about suing Texas.