HOUSTON (AP) - People living in traditionally black Harris County neighborhoods received a disproportionate share of letters advising them that they were in danger of having their voter registration canceled because they were presumed dead, according to a newspaper analysis.
The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday that its analysis of 9,000 notifications showed about a third coming from one county commission district established more than two decades ago as a minority opportunity district.
Widespread complaints about attempts to purge the rolls of deceased voters led Harris County to call off any action before the Nov. 6 election. County officials say 32 percent of the voters who received the notices have confirmed they are alive. As of Oct. 1, 7 percent of those listed as possibly dead were confirmed as such.
Don Sumners, the county's tax assessor collector and voter registrar who said the county would not remove anyone before the election, said the information used to form the lists was race neutral. He suggested the disproportionate impact could have more to do with aging voters in historically black neighborhoods.
A September 2011 Texas law required the secretary of state to compare Social Security death data with voter records in an attempt to clean rolls of anyone deceased. Voters would be notified and asked to provide proof that they were alive.
Last month, a Texas judge temporarily blocked the state from ordering counties to remove names of voters the government thinks may be dead. Several living voters who received the letters elsewhere in Texas sued the state. The state is fighting that judge's decision.
The newspaper's analysis found that in Harris County nearly 2,900, or 32 percent, of the letters went to addresses in county commission Precinct 1, more than any of the other three districts.
E. Franco Lee, that precinct's commissioner and the only African-American on the commission, said he intended to ask the Harris County Attorney's Office and federal prosecutors to look at the situation.
"The recent mistakes let me know that we need a neutral party to look into the matter," he said. "And that's the U.S. Department of Justice."
Blacks represent 19 percent of the voting-age population in Harris County, according to U.S. census estimates.
The state sent two lists of voters who might be deceased to counties, including "strong" and "weak" matches. The counties were expected to determine who was sent letters. Harris County sent letters to all 9,000 names on the "weak" list.
Hearing on Thursday
A judge's order that absolved Texas counties from purging potentially dead people from voter rolls before the November election is being challenged by state prosecutors.
A hearing will now likely determine whether county voting registrars will resume checking 81,000 names that the Social Security Administration has flagged as potentially dead.
State elections officials say a state law passed last year requires counties to check voting rolls against the federal agency's list, which is known to have errors. That resulted in thousands of people receiving letters instructing them to confirm they're alive.
A state district judge this week temporarily barred the state from enforcing the law. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Sept. 22 asked for that order to be dissolved.
The hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
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