Beg pardon, but are you dead?

Published 11:22 am Thursday, September 27, 2012

One of the better opening paragraphs in a news story about Texas’ latest election flap came from Houston Chronicle reporter Mike Morris on Sept. 11:

“Harris County 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.”

Some background on the latest election jumble:

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The Texas Legislature in 2011 ordered the Texas secretary of state — the state’s chief election officer — to check voter rolls to make sure everyone on them was alive, if not necessarily kicking.

Unlike the whole Republican-driven flap over Voter ID — requiring the showing of a photo identification card in order to vote — this one was so low-key that it passed the Legislature on the Local and Consent Calendar.

That’s the one reserved for items that are considered either truly local in nature under House rules, or with virtually no opposition. All it takes to remove a bill from Local and Consent is five of the 150 House members to request it. This bill — House Bill 174 — passed both the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote.

The support was so bipartisan, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wrote in an opinion column, “because we all agree maintaining accurate election lists is vital to running fair and efficient elections.”

The Legislature didn’t anticipate any problems, Ellis said, because “It went into effect Sept. 1 — of last year.” That was a full 14 months before the 2012 general election.

But, not so fast. First, the secretary of state’s office decided it needed to make sure that the primary elections on March 6 came off without a hitch.

But there was a hitch. The legislative and congressional redistricting maps drawn by the Republicans in the Legislature were challenged in federal court as discriminatory by minority groups.

That eventually resulted in a federal court drawing an interim map to be used for the 2012 elections. Meantime, the March 6 primaries were postponed to May 29, with runoffs July 31.  

Secretary of State Hope Andrade told county voter officials to notify people listed as deceased on Social Security rolls that if they didn’t demonstrate their aliveness within 30 days, they would be stricken from the voter list.

In Harris County, where Houston is located, County Tax Assessor-Collector Sumners sent letters to asking them  essentially, if they’re dead.  Sumners’ office received hundreds of calls from presumed dead folks who weren’t.

Sumner decided to cancel the purge project until after the November election.

Sumners said he would take the advice of Houston’s Ministers Against Crime, and sent those follow-up letters informing those presumed dead that they’d still be able to vote in November.

“In response to voters’ confirmations they are alive and my learning the weakness of the matches in this file, we have decided that persons not responding to the challenge letter will remain on the roll until after the Nov. 6 election,” Sumners said in a press release. “One should err on the side of caution before removing a registered voter from the roll.”

Dallas County Election Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole also said she would hold up on the purge until after the election, since her office doesn’t have the time or staff to verify the “dead” list.

But again, not so fast. Secretary Andrade’s office informed Sumners he needed to follow her instructions on the purge. If he didn’t, the state would withhold about $700,000 in state reimbursement earmarked for his office expenditures to help register voters, update registrations, and pay for equipment and election workers.

On Sept. 19, however, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak, in a suit against Secretary Andrade challenging the tardy voter purge, issued a temporary restraining order to put a hold on the process.

Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, who has overseen Texas’ efforts to put the Voter ID law into effect, on Sept. 21 filed an appeal to Judge Sulak to dissolve his restraining order.

Sulak has set a hearing Oct. 4 on whether to make the restraining order permanent, and hear Abbott’s appeal to dissolve the restraining order.

Sen. Ellis embraces the idea of putting off the purge until after the November election.

“In the name of fairness and efficiency, we should call a timeout until Jan. 1 and ask the secretary of state to work with the legislature and counties to ensure the cleanup is done in the most efficient, fair and transparent way, long before any elections take place,” Ellis wrote, “so as to eliminate the appearance of political games.”

Contact McNeely at or 512/458-2963.