Two years ago, the week before Election Day, I drove to Harris County, Texas. More specifically, I drove to the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, a polling location for early voting in one of Houston’s poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. After alleging that Harris County had a widespread problem with voter fraud, a Tea Party group called the King Street Patriots had launched a project called True the Vote, which had trained hundreds of volunteer poll watchers. As the early-voting period began, reports had begun to trickle out about white poll watchers arriving at minority precincts and intimidating voters. In Texas, poll watchers, appointed by a political party to watch the proceedings, aren’t allowed to do much; they’re barred from communicating with voters. But these poll watchers, foreign to the neighborhoods they were working in, were apparently not all observing the rules.
The running dispute over presumed-dead voters on Harris County rolls was substantially resolved Wednesday between the Texas Secretary of State’s office and Harris County’s tax registrar just hours before a Travis County judge issued an order that temporarily prevents the removal of names from registration lists statewide. About 9,000 Harris County voters got letters this month from the office of Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners, who also serves as the voter registrar, stating that records suggested that they are deceased and that they must act within 30 days to stay on the rolls. The local names are among more than 70,000 on a statewide list generated by the secretary of state using the Social Security Administration’s master death file as required by state law. The federal agency’s compilation has been determined as sometimes incorrect.
The Harris County Attorney’s office on Tuesday defended Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners’ decision not to purge presumed-dead voters from the rolls until after the November election, and accused the secretary of state’s office of not following the law in providing a list of 9,000 such voters to the county. About 72,800 voters statewide have received or will receive letters telling them records suggest they may be dead and that they must act within 30 days to stay on the rolls. The list was generated by the secretary of state using the Social Security Administration’s master death file, as outlined in a new state law. “The notice from the secretary of state did not make the required determination that the voters on the list were deceased,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said, adding that two of his attorneys received the letters. “This action by the Texas secretary of state is outrageous, wrong, and unlawful.” Ryan also said the state cannot force Sumners, as the county voter registrar, to send the letters.