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“Phantom” voters

This is a molehill, not a mountain.

Sixteen small counties across Texas appear to have more registered voters on their rolls as of 2010 than qualified citizens of voting age – a phenomenon prompting conservative Washington, D.C., watchdog group to question whether the “overcounts” could raise the potential for election fraud.

The Chronicle reviewed public records for all Texas counties and found evidence of surplus registered voters in rural Texas counties scattered statewide, including East Texas counties like Chambers, Trinity, and Polk, as well as border counties like Presidio in Big Bend country and Maverick County surrounding the border at Eagle Pass.

Tom Fitton, president of nonprofit Judicial Watch, told the Chronicle his group plans to ask the Texas Secretary of State to examine all Texas counties with oversized voter rolls. The group has demanded probes in other states as the result of its own nationwide comparisons of 2010 voter registration and census data.


Loving County, the sprawling arid ranchlands in Southwest Texas that are said to be the least populated of all U.S. counties, reported 105 registered voters in January 2010, though the census found only 40 people of voting age.

Large extended families – mostly related to office holders – come back to vote, said Sheriff Billy B. Hopper, who also serves as voter registrar.

Other rural counties with surplus voters have been the site of more recent election or voter fraud investigations by the Office of the Attorney General, records show. But spokesman Jerry Strickland had no comment about the voter registration figures.

Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said the office has a policy of not commenting on any outsiders’ analysis of voter rolls. But he said that having more registered voters than citizens over the voting age in rural counties is not unexpected. It could be explained by various factors, including retiree and campus voters, who might vote in Texas but be counted as residents of other counties or other states in the census, as well as voters who moved away from rural counties but failed to cancel old registrations.

There are a variety of factors at play here, the vast majority of which are likely to be innocent if you bother to drill all the way down. Before anyone gets too worked up about this fairly un-shocking allegation, allow me to refresh everyone’s memory about a little kerfuffle involving a well-known political figure from a few years back.

Still walking free among us

Presidential adviser Karl Rove may live in Washington. But in his heart — and for voting purposes — he remains a Texan. Which means he is not legally entitled to the homestead deduction and property tax cap he’s been getting on his Palisades home for the past 3 1/2 years.


Rove is now registered to vote in Kerr County, about 80 miles west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. He and his wife, Darby, have owned property there, on the Guadalupe River, since at least 1997, according to county property records.

But as far as the locals know, the couple have never actually lived in either of two tiny rental cottages Rove claims as his residence on Texas voter registration rolls. The largest is 814 square feet and valued by the county at about $25,000.

“I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never seen him. There are only, like, three grocery stores in town. You’d think you’d at least see him at the HEB” grocery, said Greg Shrader, editor and publisher of the Kerrville Daily Times.


Down in Texas, when you register to vote in a place where you don’t actually live, the county prosecutor can come after you for voter fraud, said Elizabeth Reyes, an attorney with the elections division of the Texas Secretary of State. Rove’s rental cottage “doesn’t sound like a residence to me, because it’s not a fixed place of habitation,” she said. “If it’s just property that they own, ownership doesn’t make that a residence.”

Still, under state law, the definition of a Texan is really pretty loose, Reyes said, even for voting purposes. So someone would have to file a complaint.

In the end, she said, “Questions of residency are ultimately for the court to decide.”

Rove, of course, was never prosecuted for voter fraud. That’s one example of how someone can be legally registered to vote someplace where the Census would not find him. The Chron story has others, and a more recent Texas Trib story from 2010, when now-State Sen. Brian Birdwell was fighting off allegations that he was a resident of Virginia as recently as 2006 and thus ineligible to run for the Senate (I trust you can tell from the information given how that turned out) has yet another.

The state’s election law calls residence “one’s home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.” It also says you don’t lose your residence by temporarily moving somewhere else and that you don’t necessarily become a resident of another place if it’s not your intention to stay there. And it says the issue is subject to case law.

Residency fights aren’t based on a clear set of rules, and politicians regularly avoid them. The law has lots of gray areas in it — you can reside in one place, sleep every night in another, all while intending to live in a third spot.

That mostly has to do with residency for purposes of being a candidate for office, but the principle is the same. In Texas, you’re a resident of wherever you say you are, and it’s damn hard to legally establish otherwise. Despite the lurid headline on this story, there’s no evidence of fraud here. There’s barely even a suggestion of it.

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  1. Noel Freeman says:

    One other aspect is that Texas lacks a reliable way to purge dead people from the voter rolls that doesn’t solely rely on county employees reading the obituaries in the paper. Even at that, you could take a page out of the obituaries from several years ago and still find some of those people on the rolls today. I would be willing to bet the number of dead people still on the rolls in Harris County exceeds 100,000.

    We also see instances wherein voters are registered in more than one county because they moved and the county they used to live in had no reliable way of knowing those voters have moved. These problems are a product of a voter registration system that has fundamental flaws.

  2. Brad M. says:

    I’ll be interested in the “response” by the SOS.

  3. Mainstream says:

    These issues are much more complex than many voters would suspect.

    But this analysis and the comments blur two very different issues.

    One is the accuracy of the rolls themselves, with dead voters, voters in houses which have been demolished, voting from commercial addresses, persons who long ago moved, etc.

    The second is how to determine the proper voting place for the wildly mobile society in which we live: Karl Rove or George H.W. Bush or a congressman physically living in DC but keeping a connection with home base; an oil and gas worker stationed in Nigeria for a job; a person from Houston on a 18 month backpacking trip around the world. Do you have to own or rent property to vote? Many voters have less exotic residence blurring: vacation homes, beach homes, students or young mobile adults using mom’s house as a permanent mail drop, extended families keeping an ancestral home as the voting base.

    The political custom in Texas appears to be to allow anyone to choose any one place from which to vote.

  4. matx says:

    The secretary of state doesn’t even collect information from voters that might possibly help (or quite possibly hurt) their lawsuits about possible disenfranchisement of voters who actually exist–why would the office possibly care about those who have passed on or might actually vote elsewhere?

    Texas needs to firm up their voting eligibility and residency laws before it tries to seriously argue who is eligible to vote in Texas.

  5. […] example of Texas’ notoriously forgiving residency laws, which generally make it easy to register or represent wherever you say you live, whether or not you really live there. The Lege is full of […]