State, Plaintiffs Reach Deal in "Dead Voter" Lawsuit

A lawsuit by four registered voters alleging that the state of Texas was violating their civil rights by purging them from voter rolls has been dropped after the plaintiffs and the state reached an agreement. 

The Texas residents brought the suit after receiving letters from their county registrar indicating that the office had reason to believe the voters were dead. Elections officials stated the voters would be dropped from the voter rolls if they did not respond to a letter asking them to prove they were alive within 30 days.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs won an injunction last month to stop the process after tens of thousands of letters were sent out, including many to voters who were still alive. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sought to have the restraining order dissolved, however, and a hearing was scheduled for this week on the matter. After Wednesday’s agreement, however, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the suit after the state agreed that it would not purge voters if they failed to respond within the allotted time frame.

“The confusion arose because some 68,000 notices of ‘potential deceased’ voters were sent out to county voter registrars based on ‘weak’ information that some of them might be dead,” plaintiffs’’ attorney Randall “Buck” Wood said in a news release. “All sorts of voters were mailed out a demand to respond to these notices within 30 days or be purged from the voter rolls right before the election.”

The two sides agreed that instead, the plaintiffs would not object to the purging of voters whom the secretary of state or local registrars could confirm were dead, and the secretary of state’s office sent out a revised instructional statement to county elections administrators.

“Voter registrars are expected to conduct an independent review of ‘weak’ matches to determine whether a voter is appropriately on the voter rolls,” Keith Ingram, the director of the state’s elections division, wrote in the revised statement. “Records of potentially deceased voters should be reviewed as quickly as possible once information is received by a Voter Registrar indicating the voter may be deceased.”

Abbott released a brief statement praising Wednesday's actions.

"Today's order is another step toward improving the integrity of the election system," he said. "The order means dead voters can and should be deleted from the rolls, and allows for the removal of dead voters to continue."

Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade said she was pleased the matter was resolved and is ready to move forward. But, she added, the agreement changes nothing by way of procedure.

“This agreement in no way alters or revises the process that has been in place from the beginning of this exercise and indeed has been in place since the codification of the election code in 1985,” she said in a prepared statement. “This process has never precluded counties from taking the time local officials deem necessary to confirm a voter’s status, and counties must still follow the law under Texas Election Code 16.033(d)2 to remove deceased voters.”

The controversy began last month after the state began enforcing House Bill 174, by state Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, which requires the Texas secretary of state’s office to access the Social Security Administration’s death master file to check for deceased voters.

Sarah Schultz-Lackey, a spokeswoman for the SSA’s Dallas regional offices told the Tribune it had about 93 million records in the database and uses a variety of sources to compile the list, including family members; funeral homes; state and federal agencies including Medicare, Medicaid and financial institutions; and internal sources. With so many sources, the she said, an occasional error is likely.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, praised the decision and said the process was flawed from its inception.

“It took too long to get underway and we are too close to Election Day to try to rush through a purge that will likely cost many Texans their opportunity to vote,” he said in a prepared statement. “Given the fact that we are less than barely a month away from Election Day and less than a week away from the registration deadline, now was the time to take action.”

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