By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A Texas judge on Thursday temporarily blocked part of a state effort to remove dead people from the voter rolls after the purge led to thousands of people receiving letters asking them to prove they are alive.
The ruling by State District Judge Tim Sulak in Austin came after four Texas voters filed suit on Wednesday on the grounds that the voter roll purge violated state and federal election law and could interfere with people who were very much alive being able to vote in November.
Election officials sent about 80,000 notices to voters who were dead or "potentially deceased." The voters were told they needed to provide evidence that they were alive within 30 days or they would be removed from the rolls, the lawsuit said.
"The secretary of state's office is trying their best to force local registrars to purge people off the rolls who are alive and well," said Buck Wood, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Rich Parsons, a spokesman for Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade, said: "Our policy is we do not comment on pending litigation."
Andrade told a state senator in a September 11 letter that if someone failed to respond and was dropped from the rolls, and local officials later received information that the person was eligible, the officials must reinstate the voter immediately.
"In this way, any individuals canceled, who should not have been, are not penalized," Andrade wrote.
Among the voters who received a notice in the mail was Wood's son Dylan Wood, also an Austin lawyer.
"It was a little puzzling - I'm 42 years old," said Dylan Wood, one of the four voters suing state and local officials. "I still would like to know what it is that led them to believe I was dead."
Texas has long purged dead voters from the rolls, but a new state law passed with little fanfare in 2011 requires the state to use information from the Social Security Administration to evaluate the rolls.
Buck Wood said that in some cases, voters who have the same date of birth and final four Social Security digits as a dead person received notice that they were potentially dead. State officials called those "weak" matches.
Buck Wood said he doesn't object to officials purging "strong" matches - voters whose name, date of birth and full Social Security number all match those of a dead person.
The judge's order blocks Andrade from instructing counties to remove names from voter rolls in cases of weak matches. It also says that officials in Travis County - where Austin is located - must stop mailing out the notices to voters.
A hearing in the case was set for October 4.
(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)