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A New Texas Two-Step: One Forward, Two Back

Consensus among Texan legislators on election issues is becoming vanishingly rare. The defeat of H.B. 1457—a bill designed to correct administrative flaws in the voting system—is the latest example.

  • Justin Levitt
July 1, 2009
Consensus among Texan legislators on election issues is becoming – stated generously – vanishingly rare.  In 2007, a firestorm over voter ID proposals grew so acrimonious that a State Senator rallied to block proposed legislation, despite the fact that he was recovering from a liver transplant and needed a hospital bed to be kept about 100 feet from the Senate floor.  Two years later, sparring over a new proposal drove marathon hearings running for 23 hours straight

This general climate makes H.B. 1457 nothing short of a wonder.  It passed the State House 144–1.  It passed the State Senate 31–0.  Bipartisan, near-unanimous support – until it was shot down last week by Governor “Rick” Perry’s veto.  Its demise is a shame, for Texans of all stripes. 

The bill was a common-sense attempt to address administrative flaws that cost Texan election officials time, Texan taxpayers money, and Texan citizens the right to vote.  The federal Help America Vote Act asks each state to try to match the information on new voter registration forms to data in the motor vehicles or Social Security systems.  Under the federal law, when the system can’t find a match, voters who mailed in their forms are flagged, and have to show ID before they vote.  Texas went a bit farther, requiring every new voter with a failed match (whether registering by mail or not) to show ID, after required correspondence back and forth. 

The biggest problem with the system is that the matching system isn’t very sophisticated, and simple mistakes or inconsistencies cause the match to fail.  A lot.  When a data entry temp hits the wrong key, the match can fail.  When a voter has a compound name, like “Mary Ann Smith” or “Linus van Pelt,” the match can fail.  When a voter uses a nickname, like “Bill,” or a middle name, like “F. Scott,” the match can fail.  The motor vehicles match does better than the Social Security version, and some clerks catch mistakes more often than others.  Still, the matching problems add up.  In 2008, the match failed, nationwide, about 30% of the time

Most of these common matching errors have nothing whatsoever to do with the eligibility of the person trying to register.  But the errors do take time to resolve, and cause hassles for both county clerks and voters.  So Rep. Scott Hochberg, an engineer who understands both the capacity and the limits of technology, tried to reduce the impact of the mistakes.  His bill asked the Secretary of State to come up with reasonable standards for deciding when the name submitted by a local registrar was actually the same person on motor vehicle records, and for sending mismatched information back to registrars to help them resolve discrepancies.  It also asked the registrar to give rejected applicants as much information as possible, to help them resolve problems.  Simple, common-sense stuff - which explains why 99.4% of legislators agreed. 

Gov. Perry, unfortunately, thought differently.  His primary excuse for the veto was that a slight mismatch “is a strong indication that the application was filled out by someone other than the rightful voter.”   

“Rick,” of all people, should know better. 

Never mind logic, which points in exactly the other direction. Attempted fraudsters – many of whom copy phone book records in order to get paid for registration canvassing they don’t actually do – have no idea what a particular voter’s driver’s license number is, and don’t come close when they scribble something random down.  Slight and readily identifiable mistakes in a name or birthday, on the other hand, are a “strong indication” that someone hit the wrong key when typing.  Like when Gov. Perry discussed “indentifying” information in his veto message.  The logical assumption is that Gov. Perry’s clerical assistant screwed up – not that some fraudster faked the veto. 

And never mind facts, which point in exactly the other direction.  In two federal cases now, the overwhelming evidence has been that, as one election official recognized, “Most times the [voter’s registration] record is unable to be verified because of a data entry error at the time of input (i.e., misspelled names and number transpositions).”   

No, Gov. Perry should have recognized that mismatches don’t usually indicate fraud, because his own registration application would likely have been mismatched.  See, “Rick” Perry is actually “James Richard” Perry.  And though I don’t know what name Gov. Perry uses on his driver’s license, his Social Security Administration records almost certainly reflect the name he was first given.   

175 of 176 Texas legislators thought that their Secretary of State should be able to issue common-sense rules to decide when it’s sufficiently clear that Rick Perry is actually James Richard Perry.  It is a real shame for Texans that James Richard disagreed.