Ellis: Houston (and Texas), we have a voter rolls problem

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In the past week, thousands of voters across Texas opened their mailboxes to learn that they might be dead. It was quite a shock to many of them.

This week, I began receiving calls from constituents who had received letters from Harris County voting officials stating the government had obtained information indicating they were deceased and, unless they responded to the letter within 30 days, their voter registration will be canceled. Thousands of such letters apparently have gone out across the state.

Here’s the back story: Last year, the legislature passed a bill, HB 174, instructing the secretary of state to coordinate with county election officials to clean up voter rolls across Texas.

The law, a straightforward plan to remove deceased voters from election lists, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support because we all agree maintaining accurate election lists is vital to running fair and efficient elections. It went into effect Sept. 1 — of last year.

Thanks to the complexity of the task at hand, bureaucratic red tape and the sometimes slothlike pace in which federal, state and county governments coordinate, the final and most critical phase of the cleanup effort is only just now beginning, fewer than 55 days from Election Day and barely a month from the beginning of early voting.

The list of “potentially deceased voters” comes from the Texas secretary of state’s office, which gets it from the federal Social Security Administration, finesses it, and then sends it on to Texas county voting officials. The list is more of an “FYI, someone in your area named John Doe has passed on, you should double-check on that,” rather than a directive stating “John Doe at 123 Fake Street is definitely dead, remove him from the voter roll.”

The confusion, database errors, and rapidly approaching deadline raise the specter that thousands of legal Texas voters could be denied their right to vote as a result of a clearly flawed voter purge. Election officials are downplaying that concern, saying that anyone “mistakenly” removed from the voter lists will be able to easily rectify the situation on Election Day and have his or her vote counted.

Experience and reality say otherwise.

When you go to vote, the election official looks at your documentation and checks the list for your name, gives you your ballot, and you cast your vote. If you have been purged, there is not a note next to the names saying “please ask voters if they are alive”; your name is just gone. For election purposes, you do not exist.

As officials try to sort out the confusion, the line behind you will get longer, complicating the election for everyone in your precinct. Meanwhile, partisan election watchers will come over and raise objections to allowing you to cast your vote.

This should be a noncontroversial issue. We all want accurate voter rolls. Unfortunately, it comes at the same time that there are unprecedented efforts to prevent legal voters from exercising their right to vote.

Texas’ voter ID law, which erects onerous and unnecessary barriers to voting, recently was struck down by federal courts as being discriminatory, and there is a well-known and well-funded poll-watching operation in place to intimidate voters and unduly complicate the process on Election Day.

In the case of the voter purge, I don’t think there is any nefarious or malicious intent. Instead, it is all about timing. Election officials took a year to get the list in place, and now they want to start the process barely a month before early voting begins. If these letters had gone out in May, we would not be having this discussion because they would have had plenty of time to fix any errors.

The process is clearly flawed and fraught with peril. It took too long to get under way, and we are too close to Election Day to try to rush through a purge that likely will cost many Texans their opportunity to vote. 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 so as to eliminate the appearance of political games.

Our state and our voters deserve no less.

Ellis, a Democrat, represents parts of Fort Bend and Harris counties in the Texas Senate.

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