Voter registration cards spark new round of confusion


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist DENNIS THOMAS

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 8:16 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 19 at 8:20 PM

AUSTIN -- When Yvonne Beatty opened her mailbox this week, she found her new voter registration card -- and on it, a surprise. 
"Rose is the name that I did not expect to see," said the Austin resident. Her reaction to seeing the maiden name she hasn't used in 30 years was immediate. "Anger, to be honest, because I've heard of the new voter ID law, and I thought it would affect me when I'm voting next time."
She's nowhere near alone. Of the 573,811 new registration cards mailed out in Travis County, 98,834 included a former name on the record. The resulting confusion has heated up phone lines at the office of Travis County Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant, who says don't shoot the messenger.
"We received a memo from the secretary of state for this election requiring that former names be listed on the voter registration cards," Elfant explained. "And the idea behind it was a positive one, I think. I think that they were looking for as many names as possible that might match a photo ID." 
The voter registration database has long included former names dating back to when the voter first registered. Elfant suggests adding the former names may make things easier for those who may have recently changed their name but haven't updated their driver's license. 
"The unintended consequence is it's causing people to see names that they have not used in awhile or don't wish to use anymore," said Elfant.
The office of Texas Secretary of State John Steen responded to questions over the intent and timing of the request with a statement to KVUE Thursday.
"Some voters may see a change in the format of their voter registration cards following the enactment of photo ID requirements because there was a push to standardize the way names are displayed," said communications director Alicia Phillips Pierce. "This standardization lets voters know how their name will appear on the official voting roll and complies with long-standing law."
According to a web post by state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), poll workers will be instructed to match new state required photo identification against the name listed in the white portion of the registration card. As in the most recent election, voters with names on the voter roll that don't exactly match but are substantially similar to the name listed on their approved identification can still vote.
Under an amendment authored by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) and incorporated into the original 2011 voter ID bill, voters with a slight mismatch can cast their ballot after initialing an affidavit box on the same form used to sign in at the polling location.
"No one's going to be disenfranchised by this issue," said Elfant. "The former name is not going to keep anybody from voting."
Nonetheless, Elfant encourages those who want to change the name listed on their card to do so. One method is to write the desired name in the space provided on the back of the voter registration card and return it. Information can also be updated at the secretary of state's website as well as at the county voter registration office.
With women once again disproportionately affected by a name-related issue stemming from the voter ID law, the latest issue has resulted in another round of concern over its potential effects, despite assurances from officials.
"It doesn't sit well with me either," said Beatty. "I don't want to go into the polling place with a question mark in my head, are they going to let me vote or not?"
The biggest issue for Travis County election officials now is addressing a situation that could very well result in voters being turned away at the polls under the law requiring specific forms of state or federal photo identification in order to vote. 
"We received a list from the secretary of state's office of 37,000 Travis County registered voters who they believe don't have a state-issued identification, which means a driver's license, a personal identification or a gun permit," said Elfant.
Since the secretary of state's office doesn't track federal IDs, those voters could potentially hold military identification or passports that would also qualify as acceptable identification under the state law. Elfant says his office is taking no chances.
"That's the group of people that we're most concerned about," said Elfant. "So we're going to be sending them a postcard 45 days before this next election to make sure that they understand what the requirements are and tell them how they can get an ID if they need one."
That process has already begun. Early voting for the special runoff election to replace retired state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) in House District 50 begins Tuesday, January 21. The election will be held January 28.