recent change in voter registration law has left hundreds and possibly thousands of Travis and Williamson county residents temporarily ineligible to cast their ballots here.
Most are voters who had moved to other parts of Texas and recently returned. No one is sure how many people that is. But Travis County officials are scrambling to reach the approximately 8,500 people known to have moved out of the county who could go to the polls in the March presidential primaries and find they cannot vote.
Williamson County officials say they have found most of the affected voters, but a few could still be surprised on Election Day.
"It's a mess," said Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears, whose office oversees voter registration.
The problem is that a new statewide voter registration database canceled 8,500 Travis County registrations when it came online last year.
Some of those people were almost certainly purged correctly because they now live in other parts of the state. But Travis officials say hundreds of cases have surfaced in which a registration was improperly canceled for someone living here. Hundreds more might not have been caught yet, they warn.
Andrew Knox is one of the people who has been caught in the mess. The 38-year-old had moved from Austin to College Station and then came back to Austin two years ago. He updated his voter information shortly after returning. Last week, he received a letter from Travis County informing him that he was still registered in College Station and could not vote in Austin.
Knox was able to re-establish his eligibility here. But, he said, the situation "kind of hacked me off because it's so close to the election."
The presidential primaries are in March, and voters must be registered by Feb. 4.
Primary voters who find their registration has been canceled could still cast "provisional ballots," which election officials decide whether to count in the days after an election. But Travis officials say such ballots might not be admissible under state law, an opinion that varies between counties.
This is another example of the difficulty Texas has faced in establishing a statewide voter registration database after years of leaving counties responsible.
Election officials in other counties say that the new system is flawed and that Knox's situation is just one example. State officials blame their local counterparts for the problems.
"Travis County should have been keeping better records," said Scott Haywood, a spokesman for Secretary of State Phil Wilson, adding that Travis is the only county to be having many of these problems.
The severity of the problem varies by county. Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said she expects that voters will encounter a minimum of problems. But Julie Seippel, Williamson County's voter registration coordinator, said hundreds of voters there have found their registrations canceled in the past nine months. She said the ballots of people who discovered the problem at the polls were set aside but ultimately counted.
This is just one of many problems Harris County has found with the database, said Paul Bettancourt, who oversees Harris' registration.
Officials from Dallas, Tarrant and Hays counties did not return calls for comment.
The problem stems from a federal mandate to states to create centralized registration lists, which are intended to prevent fraud by ensuring that voters cannot cast their ballots in multiple counties.
Counties had previously relied on one another to know when a voter moved, a system that Spears and Seippel said was inconsistent because voters usually did not tell election officials in their new communities where they came from.
Knox's case is an example of how this caused a breakdown when the statewide database was created.
When he moved from Austin, Knox did not tell College Station's elections department where he came from, and they did not know to notify Travis County to cancel his registration here. Knox was unknowingly registered in both places.
Then Knox moved back to Austin, assumed his registration was still valid and simply sent in a change-of-address form, voting in a local election. Travis County assumed he had simply moved across town.
More than a year later, when the state's database came online, Knox's Travis County registration was canceled.
That's because the database looks only at when someone originally registered, not when they last updated their information. Because Knox did not have to refile his entire Travis County registration, the state assumed he lived in College Station because his original paperwork there was more recent.
Spears and other county election officials said they had predicted this situation and asked the state to use different criteria, such as the last time a voter updated his or her home address.
Haywood, the secretary of state's spokesman, could not say whether the state had considered using other records but said it didn't have to.
"If Travis County had been canceling its voters (registrations) like they were supposed to," he said, "there would be no problem."
Knox, who markets telecommunications equipment, disagreed. He said talks with both the county and secretary of state's office left him thinking the state should have used better data to figure out who lives where.
"I don't think they're trying to disenfranchise anyone," he said. "I think they just need a better database person."
How to fix the problem
People who moved away from Travis County and returned recently should call the county tax office, which handles voter registration, at (512) 854-9473. Applications to register can be downloaded through the tax office at www.traviscountytax.org/goVoters.do or picked up at numerous locations, including
H-E-B stores and post offices. Applications must be filed by Feb. 4 to vote in the March presidential primary.
Read more in the Austin American Statesman