As the March primary election approaches, election officials throughout the state are gearing up for potential problems.
This March 4 primary will be the biggest election since the state’s voter ID law, which requires voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls, went into effect last year.
Dallas election officials have sent out hundreds of thousands of notes to voters informing them of potential problems with the way their names are listed on photo ID cards versus the way they are listed in the voter registration database.
Tarrant County officials chose not to send out notes, saying any name problem can be handled at the polls.
“We are taking a different approach and we will let voters handle it at the polling place,” said Steve Raborn, Tarrant County's election administrator. “You could send these postcards out and ask people if they want to match their names beforehand.
“My greater concern is that it might cause voter confusion and could even make someone not vote.”
State lawmakers approved the voter ID measure in 2011, but it didn’t go into effect in Texas elections until last year. Voter turnout this year is expected to be much greater.
As a result of the new law, officials say they’ve found that many voters’ names don’t identically match on a person’s voter registration card and photo ID.
Those with “substantially similar” names are allowed to sign an affidavit stating they are the same person.
“The secretary of state’s guidelines are very broad,” Raborn said. “A name really has to be completely different to not be accepted. Differences in middle names, or name changes because of marriage or divorce, are easily taken care of.
“It’s a minor inconvenience to check a box at the polling site.”
Election officials say they don’t know how many Texas voters lack photo IDs. And they don’t know how many Texans have IDs that don’t exactly match the name on voter registration rolls.
At one point, to try to create a working database, voter registration rolls were joined with names the Texas Department of Public Safety has of Texans with identification cards or driver licenses.
“Counties can request the numbers,” said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman with the Texas secretary of state’s office. “But these lists were never meant to be put together.
“Those numbers are not really an effective measure of where there can be problems,” she said. “But it’s a tool counties can use.”
Raborn said he decided not to request that inexact data.
Some counties such as Dallas — which joined a lawsuit last year challenging the voter ID law — are using such or similar lists to reach out to voters. They recently sent nearly 200,000 notices to voters about potential name problems.
It’s up to each county to decide the best way to address potential voter ID problems.
“This is a county-by-county decision,” Pierce said.
As of late January, Tarrant County had 967,478 registered voters, election records show.
Raborn said any name problems those voters have may quickly be taken care of at the polls.
There, voters can sign an affidavit certifying they are registered to vote. And they can fill out a short form to eliminate differences in the way their names are listed in the future.
“It is a minor inconvenience at the worst,” Raborn said.
Anyone who needs one may get a free election identification certificate at a driver’s license office.
Anyone who shows up at the polls to vote without a photo ID will be given a chance to go home and bring the ID back.
If they don’t, they may cast a provisional ballot. But to make sure that vote is counted, they'll have to take a valid photo ID to the elections office within six days of the election. Otherwise the ballot will not be counted.
The deadline to register to vote for the March 4 primary was Monday.
Early voting will run from Feb. 18 to Feb. 28.