Congressional Democrats are Investigating Texas’ Targeting of Naturalized Citizen Voters

A congressional oversight committee is probing acting Secretary of State David Whitley’s flawed voter purge, as well as allegations of voter suppression in two other states.

Acting Secretary of State David Whitley.
Acting Secretary of State David Whitley. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Democrats in Congress are investigating Texas officials’ targeting of tens of thousands of naturalized citizen voters earlier this year.

The investigation is part of a larger probe by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform into allegations of voter suppression in three states. Democrats in charge of the committee announced their investigation into Texas’ botched attempt to scrub the voter rolls of 95,000 alleged non-citizens in a letter Thursday to acting Secretary of State David Whitley, who oversaw the rollout of the flawed voter purge just weeks after being appointed by Governor Greg Abbott.

abbott, legislature
Governor Greg Abbott, who appointed Whitley, delivers a speech to the Texas Senate on the opening day of the 86th Legislature.  Kolten Parker

“We are disturbed by reports that your office has taken steps to remove thousands of eligible American voters from the rolls in Texas and that you have referred many of these Americans for possible criminal prosecution,” wrote Elijah Cummings, who chairs the committee, and Jamie Raskin, who chairs a subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties. Both are Democrats from Maryland. The letter requests documents related to Whitley’s botched effort, which targeted tens of thousands of naturalized citizens, along with communications between his office and top state officials and the Trump Administration.

Neither Whitley nor Abbott’s office would immediately comment on the investigation by the committee, which has the power to subpoena information. “We are reviewing the letter and look forward to providing the committee with information that demonstrates our compliance with the law while ensuring free and fair elections,” Jeff Mateer, the state’s first assistant attorney general, said in prepared statement.

Whitley’s warning to county elections officials in January started to collapse almost as soon as he issued it. While state GOP leaders, including Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, called for swift legal action and cried “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” local officials soon discovered that tens of thousands of the names belonged to naturalized citizens. By that point, more than a dozen counties had already sent notices to registered voters demanding proof of citizenship within 30 days or else their registration would be canceled. Whitley soon admitted that the data-matching process was flawed.

In lawsuits filed on behalf of citizens targeted by the purge, civil rights organizations argue that Whitley’s effort was designed to scare naturalized citizens away from the polls and bolster calls for for more voting restrictions this legislative session.

Last month, a federal judge hearing those lawsuits effectively ground the purge to a halt, calling it a “ham-handed” solution in search of a problem. “[T]here is no widespread voter fraud,” wrote San Antonio federal district court judge Fred Biery in his order. “The challenge is how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack of 15 million Texas voters.”

The congressional probe puts Whitley’s actions in a larger national context. The letter to Texas officials comes weeks after the committee announced a similar investigation into Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s scrubbing of thousands of minorities from the rolls during his race against Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams. On Tuesday, the committee also announced an investigation into Kansas’ decision to close the only polling site in a majority-Latino city ahead of the 2018 midterm election.

Whitley has become the new face of voter suppression in Texas. He served as a loyal aide to Abbott for many years before the governor appointed him to be the state’s top election official. His partisan résumé and bungling of sensitive voter rights issues has made his confirmation by the Texas Senate unlikely because of unified Democratic opposition. Republicans have supported Whitley despite the fallout, sending his confirmation to the full Senate. Given Texas Republicans’ reputation on voting rights, it shouldn’t be shocking if they try to force his confirmation anyway, even amid lawsuits and a congressional investigation.

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 5:33 pm CST
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