Texas Governor Abbott Is Fine With His State’s Disastrous Voter Probe

AUSTIN, Texas ― A statewide investigation that cast scrutiny on nearly 100,000 suspected noncitizen voters continued to unravel Thursday as more county officials revealed the state’s lists were filled with legitimate voters and critics demanded that the Republican leadership halt the process.  

But Gov. Greg Abbott is still defending his state’s decision, describing it as a legitimate effort to curb illegal voting.

“This is what you would categorize as a process,” Abbott said at a press conference Thursday morning, later adding, “It’s important to let the data speak for itself.”

So far, the data indicate that state leaders jumped the gun.

A List Riddled With False Positives

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, middle, isn't worried about his state's disastrous citizenship probe. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, middle, isn’t worried about his state’s disastrous citizenship probe. 

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley (R) issued a statement Friday saying his office had identified about 95,000 noncitizens who had registered to vote, including about 58,000 who had cast a ballot at some time over the last two decades. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed the announcement, tagging it on Twitter with the words “VOTER FRAUD ALERT.” By Sunday, President Donald Trump added to the uproar, baselessly calling it the “tip of the iceberg” and demanding “strong voter ID” ― despite the fact that Texas already requires photo ID to cast a ballot.

Critics and legal groups contested the allegations, noting that the state had culled the list primarily by checking voter registration records against those maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issues driver’s licenses and ID cards. That agency belongs to the state and doesn’t keep updated citizenship records ― it only requires proof of citizenship when people apply for state IDs. That leaves open the possibility that people who naturalized after obtaining or renewing their identification cards would still be flagged.

That’s exactly what’s happening. With each passing day, it becomes clearer that the secretary of state’s list is riddled with tens of thousands of false positives.

The office has made lurching and inconsistent steps to solve the problem it created. On Monday, facing a storm of criticism, the secretary of state’s office recalculated the list of suspected noncitizen voters, arriving at a higher figure of 98,000. But a day later, it backtracked, quietly notifying county registrars that thousands of the people named were in fact citizens, the Texas Tribune first reported.

The secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request for an updated list. But Harris County, which encompasses Texas’s largest city of Houston, so far has struck nearly two-thirds of the 29,341 names from its list of suspected noncitizen voters because they turned out to be citizens, according to County Attorney Douglas Ray. The list also included about 400 duplicates.  

The list sent to El Paso County included a naturalized citizen who works at that county office, election official Lisa Wise told HuffPost. In McLennan County, home to the city of Waco, every one of the 366 original names turned out to be a falsely flagged U.S. citizen, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported.

And Galveston County sent out letters this week to 163 suspected noncitizen voters, giving them 30 days to provide proof of citizenship ― only to discover before receiving responses that at least 58 of them were incorrectly identified by the secretary of state’s office. In those 58 cases, county officials sent new letters telling the voters to disregard the first one.

Requests For Information Met With Crickets

Both the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and a coalition of legal and activist groups demanded that the Republican leadership of Texas rescind the list, without success. The League of United Latin American Citizens filed a federal lawsuit to block the probe Tuesday, and other legal groups are considering litigation. 

Democratic state lawmakers have also used legislative privilege to demand more information about how the secretary of state’s office came up with the list. Those requests are typically filled within a couple of days, but the office has yet to comply, state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) told HuffPost.

The state’s House Committee on Elections will likely call Whitley to testify within the coming weeks.

“I want to talk to the secretary of state in a public forum and the attorney general, and his staff, and say: How did you cook this idea up?” Israel said. “Where did it come from? There seems to be some synchronicity to how you guys are messaging.”

Israel noted that she and her chief of staff met with Whitley the day before he announced the voter probe. But he failed to mention that it was coming.

The voter investigation came three months after the midterm elections, which saw major gains for Democrats in a majority-minority state where Republicans have long held firm control, despite their demographic disadvantage. Because the historically low Latino voter turnout rate has favored Republicans, critics have viewed the probe as a political stunt aimed at making naturalized citizens fearful of registering to vote.

Of the 15 counties where the secretary of state identified more than 1,000 suspected noncitizen voters, nine are solidly blue, including five that are majority Latino. Two more, Tarrant and Williamson, were historically red but voted for Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Ted Cruz’s Democratic challenger, in the midterm election, turning them purple.

As the slow-moving debacle over the suspected noncitizen voter probe moves forward with the governor’s blessing, naturalized citizens across the state are left wondering if their voter registrations will be questioned before the next election deadline on April 6.

Naturalized Citizens Left In Limbo

María García was born in Durango, Mexico, but has lived in the United States since she was 3 months old. She was naturalized as a U.S. citizen last May ― in time to cast her first ballot in November’s midterm elections.

I was super excited, but I was also very nervous,” García said. “I don’t know how fast the system picks up on the registration. I had tried to confirm ― I was checking on the site every day. When I showed up at the polling booth, I had the little receipt that you get. I had any type of documentation they would possibly ask for.”

With the deadline to register for the next Texas election only three months away, she now worries that the state’s faulty probe might leave her sitting out the next election ― not only because she is recently naturalized but also because her name might get confused with someone else’s.

I know there are other people who might receive these letters and might receive these calls, and they’ll think they did something wrong and they’ll be scared to vote again.
Julieta Garibay, naturalized citizen flagged in Texas voter probe

“My name is María García, which is the most Latino name to have,” she said. “Is that going to put me at risk for the next elections coming up? We have mayoral elections in Dallas coming up and local positions that are important to me.”

Julieta Garibay of Austin also voted for the first time last year after naturalizing. Fearing the secretary of state might have flagged her, she sent an email to the Travis County voter registrar.  

By Wednesday she got the answer. A county election official called to confirm the list included her name. The official didn’t ask whether Garibay was a citizen.

That doesn’t mean the county is contesting her registration. Officials in Travis County have already struck 634 people from the list of 4,558 suspected noncitizen voters provided by the state and are investigating further, spokeswoman Tiffany Seward said. Officials aren’t contacting voters about the list yet unless they ask.

“I’m feeling really mad,” Garibay told HuffPost. “I know there are other people who might receive these letters and might receive these calls, and they’ll think they did something wrong and they’ll be scared to vote again.”

Sam Levine contributed reporting. 

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