Watch out for voter registration cancellations

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Walter Pinkston, a Friendswood retiree and faithful Harris County voter, got a letter in late March asking his family to confirm that he was dead – which he was not – and warning that he was about to be purged from Texas voter rolls.

Retired Houston Baptist University Professor Trilla Pando received a similar notice of her death from voter registration officials in 2010.

Even Sylvia Garcia, a former Harris County commissioner, got suspended – not because anyone thought she was dead – but because county officials questioned the accuracy of a street address the Houston native had used on her voting card for years.

More than 300,000 valid voters were notified they could be removed from Texas rolls from November 2008 to November 2010 – often because they were mistaken for someone else or failed to receive or respond to generic form letters, according to Houston Chronicle interviews and analysis of voter registration data.

Garcia ended up on a “suspended voters list” in 2003 after county officials say she failed to respond to a notice to confirm her address. Though her office was then just upstairs from the voter registration office, Garcia says she never got that letter.

“How can you suspend someone without notice? To me we should be actively engaging people – we should not be adding any barrier to vote,” said Garcia, who works to boost voter participation of Hispanics nationwide as president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

1 of 10 suspended

Statewide, more than 1.5 million voters could be on the path to cancellation if they fail to vote or to update their records for two consecutive federal elections: One out of every 10 Texas voters’ registration is currently suspended. Among voters under 30, the figure is about one in five.

Texas voter registration rates are among the lowest in the nation, but Texas pays nearly twice as much to cancel voters – 40 cents per cancellation – as it does to register new ones at 25 cents.

State and federal laws require the nation’s voter rolls be regularly reviewed and cleaned to remove duplicates and eliminate voters who moved away or died. But across Texas, such “removals” rely on outdated computer programs, faulty procedures and voter responses to generic form letters, often resulting in the wrong people being sent cancellation notices, including new homeowners, college students, Texans who work abroad and folks with common names, a Chronicle review of cancellations shows.

‘Subject to error’

The Secretary of State’s office says it automatically cancels voters only when there is a “strong match” between a new registration and an older existing voter – such as full name, Social Security number and/or date of birth.

However, each year thousands of voters receive requests to verify voter information or be cancelled because they share the same name as a voter who died, got convicted of a crime or claimed to be a non-citizen to avoid jury duty. Those voters receive form letters generated by workers in county election offices that “therefore may be more subject to error,” said Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State in emailed responses to the newspaper. Voters who fail to respond to form letters – or never receive them – get dropped.

Statewide, 21 percent of the people who received purge letters later proved they were valid voters, compared with 16 percent in Harris County, according to a Chronicle analysis of the latest U.S. Election Assistance Commission data. Other counties had higher percentages: 37 percent of voters who received removal letters in Galveston County were valid voters, 40 percent in Bexar County and 70 percent in Collin County.

Mistaken for dead man

Pinkston, the Friends-wood retiree, was mistaken for a dead man in March because he shared a relatively unusual first, middle and last name with a stranger of a different age who died in Colorado, according to county information and public records.

“That seems like a very flimsy set of facts and reasoning to go about challenging my right to vote,” said Pinkston, who responded in time to save his registration. “And in my opinion, that’s a very flimsy set of circumstances to spend Harris County taxpayers’ money to investigate the matter, even if it’s only a few dollars in postage and associated costs.”

Errors ‘inevitable’

In Harris County alone, more than 100,000 voters share their name with at least one other voter. The phenomenon is even more common among Hispanics – a fact that worries voter participation activists like Garcia, the former county commissioner, who shares her name with 35 other county voters.

Harris County has been challenged in a civil lawsuit for aggressive purges, but it generally followed accepted state procedures and has been more accurate in targeting voters for cancellation than other counties, statistics and case studies show.

“We appreciate your newspaper’s thorough investigation of these issues and possible solutions,” said Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners. “The Harris County Tax Office is following the law … No errors are acceptable but some number is inevitable.”

Pando, the retired professor, said her 2008 application to vote in the presidential elections was rejected for unexplained reasons when she moved back to Texas to retire. Her erroneous death notice arrived two years later – after a woman who shared her maiden name died in another state. “If I had not been so passionate about voting I probably would have just let it go,” said Pando.

lise.olsen@chron.com

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