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.