Somebody Need Purgation?

Somebody Need Purgation?
Illustration by Craig Staggs

Former state Rep. Glen Maxey's challenge to 16-year incumbent Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears has gone prime time. Or at least basic-cable time. In a television ad that aired repeatedly over the week leading up to the Feb. 4 voter-registration deadline, Maxey blamed Spears for purges that may have improperly knocked hundreds or even thousands of people off of Travis County's voter rolls. "Nelda Spears has failed to protect our voting rights," the 30-second spot charges. "Don't wait until election day to find out you can't vote."

The controversy stems from two incidents. First, a database snafu with the secretary of state's office improperly canceled 8,500 registrations here in Travis (and thousands more in other counties). Although Spears said she worked with the state to fix the problem, she and the state pointed the finger at each other for the error.

Second was when an election judge named Mike Conwell said he found more than 1,800 voters who had been purged from the rolls within a month after casting ballots in the 2004, 2006, and 2007 elections. Spears disputed Conwell's contention that the latter purges were improper, saying the voters in question were on a "suspense" list, meaning her office had been unable to contact them to verify their addresses and that voting alone is not enough to get off the list. Conwell says that he contacted a sampling of the voters and some said they had never moved, had consistently voted, and should never have been placed on the list to begin with.

At a website Maxey created, www.neldaspurges.org, the challenger claims, "Ms. Spears has failed to answer why this problem has occurred or promised to reinstate the incorrectly purged active voters." (There's also a YouTube version of the TV ad at the site.) Maxey says Spears should be making greater efforts to contact all the voters who may have been purged.

Spears replies that she has already done so. For 1,600 of the voters possibly bounced in the database situation, "We sent out letters," Spears says. "That was, in my opinion, a proactive step – not just what the law requires." But ultimately, Spears says, her hands are tied by state law: If those voters don't respond, she can't make corrections. "Even if I see something weird in your voter registration, I'm not supposed to mess with it," she says. "I'm not supposed to make any changes to your voter record without signed authorization from you."

Concerning the situation Conwell described, Spears says that possibly election workers have failed to make sure that voters' address information was correct and said she has asked County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to improve training in that area. Ultimately, she says, it is the voter him- or herself who needs to make sure the info is correct: "At some point in this whole process," Spears says, the voter needs to say: "I'm an adult. I'm voting. I want to vote. I need to take responsibility for myself."

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