How a misleading advisory to county elections officials triggered fake news that Texas Republicans could use to bolster new barriers for voting.
Last month, after a double-digit increase in voter turnout during the midterms and the best election results Texas Democrats had seen in at least a quarter century, Governor Greg Abbott appointed one of his long-time, right-hand men as the state’s top elections official. On Friday, five weeks into the job, Secretary of State David Whitley announced a sprawling effort to police county voter rolls and “identify possible non-U.S. citizens registered to vote.”
According to an advisory Whitley’s office sent county elections administrators, the Texas Department of Public Safety had flagged 95,000 people registered to vote who, at the time they got a state driver’s license or ID card, also presented documents, such as a visa or green card, showing they weren’t citizens. Approximately 58,000 of the people authorities flagged had voted in at least one election since 1996.
That information means little on its own. Every year, tens of thousands of immigrants in Texas become naturalized citizens, and they aren’t required to notify DPS about their change of status. Still, less than an hour after Whitley announced the new effort, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” which was quickly followed by a Republican Party of Texas press release declaring “Widespread Voter Fraud in 2018.”
Soon enough, Abbott chimed in, thanking Paxton and his former deputy “for uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration.” All of which quickly fueled misleading and flat-out bogus reporting from major state media outlets, including from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (“58,000 non-U.S. citizens voted in at least one election here, election official says”) and Texas Public Radio (“Texas Secretary of State Removes 95,000 Non-Citizen Registered Voters”). Not one to pass on fake news, President Donald Trump on Sunday morning falsely told the nation that “58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote.”
The thousands of names flagged by authorities were sent to county elections administrators, who have the option of threatening to revoke registrations if suspect voters fail to respond with proof of citizenship within 30 days. The whole thing sure looked like another one of the Texas GOP’s voter suppression efforts.
On Monday, a coalition of leading civil rights groups asked Whitley’s office to rescind its advisory and address “serious questions about the methodology, origin and timing” of its investigation. The groups also sent a letter to local elections officials urging them to take no action until Whitley’s office implements safeguards to protect lawfully registered naturalized citizens from being targeted.
According to the Texas Tribune, Galveston County has already started sending out notices asking for proof of citizenship. Other local officials, including in Bexar County, have said they are seeking counsel first. Local elections officials in several counties told media outlets that the list of 95,000 registered voters includes a significant number of names that shouldn’t have been listed. In Tarrant County, for example, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that 20 percent of the names shouldn’t have been on the list. The secretary of state’s office didn’t provide specifics, but said it was alerting counties that some names were mistakenly included.
Voting rights groups argue that Republican leaders are creating a smokescreen for new voter suppression laws by ginning up unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud while potentially purging thousands of eligible Texans from voter rolls. On Friday, Abbott teased his support for legislation filed by state Representative Mike Lang, R-Granbury, which would require proof of citizenship for voter registration. State Senator Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, responded to the weekend’s news by filing a companion bill in the upper chamber on Monday.
On Tuesday, Latino civil rights group LULAC filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Antonio alleging that Whitley and Paxton had violated the Voting Rights Act. The suit claims Texas Republicans are intimidating Hispanic voters with “data that is suspect on its face” and refusing to provide details to the public on how the figures were compiled.
“It is, in short, a plan carefully calibrated to intimidate legitimate registered voters from continuing to participate in the election process,” the lawsuit reads. “The pretextual facade of concern about rampant voter fraud provides no cover for the voter intimidation at work here.”