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Update – A Perspective on Name Changes Appearing On Voter Registration Certificates

UPDATE

I owe an apology to all Texas county voter registrars (and especially the Travis County voter registrar), having now received a copy of a September 13, 2013 memo from the state director of elections that was sent out to all county election officials. I am deeply grateful to Sondra Haltom and Empower the Vote Texas for passing a copy of this memo along to me. Note – the memo is, as far as I can tell, not linked anywhere on the Secretary of State’s website, which is a departure from the practice of that agency to make all directives and notices to election officials visible to the public at large.

I hope that this is an oversight and not a change in agency policy, because otherwise I will have to engage in time-consuming public information requests to ensure that my information is up-to-date.

The memo indicates that as part of an update of the TEAM statewide voter registration database the name fields on the voter registration certificate are now expanded to include fields for current and former names, as separate elements of the voter registration certificate, and that this finer granularity in the database is called for because of the voter photo I.D. law. I’ve attached a link to the PDF copy of the memo. The relevant text is reprinted below:

Voter Registration: The implementation of SB 14 will not change the current registration process, or the current voter registration application. However, the new law does require that a voter’s name on the Official List of Registered Voters (OLRV) match exactly or be “substantially similar” to the name listed on their identification used at the polling place. If a voter’s name is not identical, but is “substantially similar,” the voter will be required to initial an affidavit stating they are the same person.

If the voter’s names on the OLRV and identification are neither identical nor substantially similar, the voter will need to vote provisionally. Therefore, the Office of the Secretary of State suggests that voters check the name on the registration, and update their registration as necessary no later than 30 days prior to an election in which the voter will vote. This will ensure that any changes made are in effect for the election. Voters will be able to use the “Am I Registered?” feature (reached through the VoteTexas.gov website) to compare the name on the OLRV to their identification. If your county needs assistance or tips on how to provide outreach to voters that may be impacted, please contact the Office of the Secretary of State.

What changes are being made to the Official List of Registered Voters (OLRV), the voter’s certificate, and the “Am I Registered?” website to provide better assistance to voters?

Official List of Registered Voters – The OLRV used to display an individual’s former name if a middle name was not present in the voter’s record. This has been corrected. The PDF version of the OLRV will now display a person’s name in the following order: Last Suffix (if any), First Middle. CSV versions of the list will retain the individual fields, but the “Full Name” column has been updated to also display a person’s name in the following order: Last Suffix (if any), First Middle. The Former name and the suffix will also be added as columns in the spreadsheet at the far end of each row.

Voter Registration Certificate – The Voter Registration Certificate has been updated. On the left hand side, where the residential address is displayed, the certificate (under current law) is required to show former name, if present. As such, the name on the certificate under residential address will show as follows: Last Suffix (if any), First Middle Former. On the right hand side of the certificate, under the mailing address the name will be displayed as First Middle Last, Suffix. The name listed with the mailing address will match what will be displayed on the OLRV. [Emphasis added].

“Am I Registered?” – The “Am I Registered?” site that can be found through VoteTexas.gov has also been updated, so that the name on the site matches what will be displayed on the OLRV. Therefore, a person may determine whether or not his/her name needs to be updated prior to heading to the polls. A link has been included to allow for voters needing to update their name to be redirected to Texas Online in order to more conveniently facilitate this update.

What bothers me in particular about this memo is that (1) it fails to clarify that the name as printed on the voter registration certificate should be determined by the format chosen by the voter when registering to vote, (or correcting a prior registration to reflect a name change), and (2) it implies that the change in printing formats for the certificate is a consequence of the voter I.D. law.

Giving the Secretary of State’s office the benefit of the doubt, I expect that this was accidental, and was not the intended message of the memo. Instead, I assume that the intention was to describe how the voter’s information would be displayed on the “Am I Registered to Vote” website. But one can certainly understand how a county registrar would interpret the memo to mean that the voter’s former name as listed in the List of Registered Voters had to be printed on the voter registration certificate even when the voter had corrected that information years or decades previously, and even when that printing would not reflect the voter’s current name use.

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A Perspective on Name Changes Appearing on Voter Registration Certificates

A recent bit of kerfuffle has arisen regarding the practice of listing all of a voter’s prior names on the voter registration certificate – this isn’t a new law, but heightened concerns about how voter I.D. may be enforced have left some women concerned that (1) their voter registration lists some odd typographical mangling of a maiden and married name, or (2) lists a former name that hasn’t been used for many years.

I haven’t been shy in my criticism of voter I.D. laws generally, but I think one must be careful to separate one issue (the dreadful policy decision to dramatically restrict the forms of  photo I.D.) from another (the format and treatment of prior names when printing the voter registration certificate).

As is so often the case with the state law, the Texas Election Code is not particularly clear about how the voter’s name is supposed to appear on the registration certificate.

When applying for voter registration, a voter must provide his or her “first name, middle name, if any, last name, and former name, if any,” per Section 13.002(c)(1) of the Election Code. The certificate itself must be printed with “the voter’s name in the form indicated by the voter, subject to applicable requirements prescribed by Section 13.002 and by rule of the secretary of state,” per Section 15.001(a)(1).

The first problem is that Section 13.002 of the Election Code doesn’t prescribe any requirements regarding how the voter’s name is printed on the certificate – it prescribes what information the voter has to submit in order to register to vote. The second problem is that the statute gives discretion to the voter to define the form of the voter’s name, and then immediately undercuts that discretion by making it subject to an agency administrative rule. Whatever one may think of the statutory drafting, it does appear that the legislative intent was to ensure that the name provided by the voter would get printed on the certificate.

On July 29, 2013, the Secretary of State issued a routine biennial directive to voter registrars, emphasizing the statutory requirements associated with voter registration certificates.  Among other things, Section 2.7 of the directive described how the voter’s name should appear on the certificate, stating, “The voter’s surname together with the first name or a combination of the first, middle, and former name must appear on the certificate. The voter registrar may also include abbreviations of names indicated on the voter registration application.  As a routine matter, print the former name on the certificate if it is given on the application.” (Emphasis added).

This is boilerplate language that has been included in similar directives issued every summer in odd-numbered years for many years (or at least since the statutory language in Section 15.001(a)(1) was adopted in more-or-less its current form in 1995) (74th Leg. R.S., ch. 390). To the extent that name changes disproportionately affect women voters (because of the practice of adopting a husband’s surname, etc.), and to the extent that such name changes may be strangely formatted or mangled as the result of data entry errors, those annoyances have been part of the voting experience for a long time.

The biggest printing problems were reported in Travis County. In response to angry voters, the county voter registrar issued a press statement indicating that the listing of prior names was the result of changes in the law following the adoption of picture I.D. requirements. I have to disagree with the county’s interpretation – whatever ills may have been born out of the whole “substantially similar name” mess did not mandate the format of the voter’s name on the voter registration certificate.

[PLEASE NOTE: I now know that voter registrars across the state were reacting to a September 13, 2013 memo from the Secretary of State that more-or-less directed them to print voters’ current and former names in a particular format. For the updated story, see the following post.]

Voters across the state were mad in Travis County because their names didn’t appear on the voter registration certificates in the same format that the voters had provided on their registration forms. In other words, Travis County apparently stored older voter information (including name changes) in some sort of database, and then printed the voters’ names as they appeared in the database, rather than as they appeared following the voters’ submission of corrections on new registration forms after the name changes.

The Travis County voter registrar is likely not motivated by a desire to suppress votes by women, but by a desire to redirect voter anger over misprinted voter registration certificates. The real meanness of Texas photo I.D. requirements isn’t revealed in the voter registration certificates (which have become sort-of useless appendages to the voting process, since they aren’t treated as I.D. any more) but in the polling place procedures for accepting voters.