Sept. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Texas officials were temporarily barred by a state judge from ordering county election officials to purge presumably dead voters from registration rolls because the initiative may violate the election code.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed yesterday by four voters who were told they would be purged from voter-registration lists as deceased. They asked state court Judge Tim Sulak in Austin to stop the state from striking about 77,000 names, arguing the plan violates state and federal law.
The secretary of state is “restrained from further instructing the counties to remove any other names from the voter rolls,” Sulak said in an order. “Plaintiffs are entitled to temporary injunctive relief.”
The voters’ Lawyers say that under the federal Voting Rights Act the state must get pre-approval for the rule changes. The law mandates that jurisdictions with a history of rights violations first get clearance for new election procedures from the U.S. Justice Department or a three-judge panel.
“There is no statutory authority for this purge,” David Richards, a civil rights lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview while waiting for the judge to rule.
Sulak, a Democrat, based his ruling only on possible violations of the election code. He said he would set another hearing in two weeks. The court will expire in 14 days, “unless otherwise extended,” he said.
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the injunction, which was handed down after regular business hours yesterday.
“Based on the original directives” from the secretary of state, the order “did not change our plans,” Tina Morton, the Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar, said today in an e-mail.
“The letters mailed to voters Sept. 6 have a 30-day deadline during which time the TRO expires,” she said. “We anticipate further directives from the court and the SOS, and will implement them without delay.” SOS referred to the secretary of state.
The lawsuit is among multiple court battles over voting rules, particularly in swing states, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see the possibility of victory.
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court set aside for further review a ruling allowing the state to enforce a law requiring voters to have photo identification, which the American Civil Liberties Union has argued was aimed at keeping likely Democratic voters away from the polls. The lower court set a hearing on the review for Sept. 25.
Voter cases are also under way in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Lawsuits filed over Florida voting rules include at least two challenging a law ostensibly designed to purge noncitizens from voter lists, which opponents say would disenfranchise new citizens as well.
A federal judge last month blocked enforcement of a new Florida law restricting voter-registration activities. A different federal judge in Florida yesterday heard arguments challenging the state’s 2011 law cutting back early voting days as biased against blacks.
Support for voter purges often falls along party lines, said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California’s Irvine School of Law.
Republicans are pursuing the purges of voter rolls because they “believe the biggest problem is voter fraud,” Hasen, the author of more than 80 articles on election law according to the school website, said in a phone interview. “They believe that not having dead people on the rolls will discourage fraud.”
“Democrats are resisting the move, because they see it as a way of removing people who aren’t regular voters from the rolls,” Hasen said. “These voters are more likely to be Democratic.”
Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade, a Republican, reached a separate compromise yesterday to resolve a dispute with Harris County, which includes Houston. The state cut off the county’s election funds last week to force compliance with the dead-voter purge. County election officials threatened to sue to restore funding.
Don Sumners, the Harris County voter registrar, refused to cancel registrations for about 10,000 “possibly deceased” people that Andrade identified in August by cross-matching state voter rosters with the U.S. Social Security Administration’s master death list.
Sumners said the Social Security database is unreliable and produces false matches. Sumners said hundreds of voters contacted his office to refute reports of their deaths after getting notices their registrations would be canceled.
Sumners said yesterday that Andrade agreed to restore the county’s election funds after he agreed to purge voters whose families confirm their deaths before the election. The county will wait until after the election to investigate about 10 percent of the remaining names, all of which are strong matches with the Social Security death list, he said. No action will be taken on the rest, considered weak matches, he said.
When all nine Social Security numbers, the last name and birth date are the same on the two lists, that is considered a strong match, Buck Wood, a lawyer for the voters suing in Austin, said after yesterday’s hearing. Comparing only a birth date and the last four digits of a Social Security number produces a weak match, he said.
When voters get these notices, they ask, “What the hell is going on?” Wood said.
Erika Kane, a lawyer with the state attorney general’s office, asked the judge if the state would have to retract prior e-mails.
“How do we address this concern without causing mass confusion to the public?” she asked.
“I’m not telling you to pull down what’s already gone out,” the judge said, adding he would order there be no further instruction to pull voters from the rolls based on weak matches.
He barred the state from ordering counties to remove voters who failed to “timely comply” with the notices based on non-responses to weak matches.
The case is Moore v. Morton, D-1-6N-12-002923, District Court, Travis County, Texas (Austin).
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