Lege Lines: Texas GOP Tees up More Voter ID Nonsense
Secretary of State issues election advisory, ignites right-wing voter fraud frenzy
When newly appointed Texas Secretary of State David Whitley (until recently a top aide to Gov. Greg Abbott) released a statement on Friday, Jan. 25, advising counties to investigate a list of some 95,000 registered voters whose U.S. citizenship was possibly in doubt (of whom 58,000 have cast a ballot in the past), it ignited a voter-fraud frenzy among the usual right-wing suspects. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted, "Voter Fraud Alert: ... Any illegal vote deprives Americans of their voice," and President Spray-Tan took to his iPhone to assert that "58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas. ... These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID!"
Texas already has one of the most stringent (see also: discriminatory) voter ID laws in the country. Beyond that, Whitley made no claim that the names on these lists are actually noncitizens; rather, they are people who, when they obtained a driver's license or ID card, provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with documentation (like a green card) showing they were not citizens, though legal U.S. residents. The state compared those names and Social Security numbers with the state voter rolls. So, some if not all of these suspect residents could have subsequently been naturalized, as some 50,000 Texans are each year. (Licenses and ID cards don't expire for six years.) Perhaps most importantly, these totals don't refer only to the current voter rolls or last election cycle; rather, they span more than 20 years – encompassing 1996 to 2018. Florida used a similar "weak match" methodology to produce a list of 180,000 potential noncitizen registered voters back in 2012; it ended up identifying just 85 truly ineligible voters.
But why let the facts slow down a nice big wave of white wingnut panic? Paxton has touted prosecuting a negligible number of noncitizen voting cases, but it remains a virtually nonexistent problem that, when spun in the right-wing media vortex, is used to bolster the push to tighten voter ID laws and restrict access to the ballot box, as well as generally rile up the base and harvest its money, as the Republican Party of Texas did with a fundraising appeal within hours of Whitley's statement. (More on that in this week's "Point Austin," Feb. 1.)
On Monday, Jan. 28, civil rights groups including the League of Women Voters of Texas, Workers Defense Action Fund, Texas Organizing Project, ACLU of Texas, and Jolt hit back with a letter to Whitley demanding he rescind his "advisory" to counties, saying the notice amounts to "another page straight out of the voter suppression handbook." The "woefully inadequate" investigation risks prompting a purge of thousands of eligible Texans from the voting rolls, the groups wrote, pointing to the Florida case, in which a federal judge ruled the effort was "likely to have a discriminatory impact on these new citizens."
The coalition also asked local officials in all 254 counties to take no action until Whitley provides more transparency on the SoS methodology and procedures and ensures that lawfully registered naturalized citizens will not be flagged erroneously. "Given the long history of anti-immigrant policies and attempts at voter suppression by our Texas officials, we cannot trust that this investigation has been conducted in a fair and non-discriminatory manner," said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. "History has shown that voter fraud is extremely rare and efforts to identify unlawful voting en masse have proven to be highly inaccurate. Despite President Trump's histrionic and highly inaccurate statement about voter fraud, each county in Texas must now act responsibly so that marginalized communities can exercise their right to vote without intimidation."
The national League of United Latin American Citizens ratcheted up the fight against Paxton and Whitley Tuesday, Jan. 29, with a lawsuit claiming the officials seek to "intimidate people who are currently legitimately registered to vote," with an "election-related witch hunt." The San Antonio-based federal suit asks U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to view the attempt as a violation the Voting Rights Act. "The pretextual facade of concern about rampant voter fraud provides no cover for the voter intimidation at work here," the lawsuit reads. With egg on its face by Tuesday, the SoS advised several counties to remove names it says were included on the lists in error.
In Travis County, Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant tells us his office is conducting its own "thorough" analysis of the 4,547 potential noncitizens on the SoS list to determine its accuracy. While taking the matter seriously enough to "trust but verify" the claims, Elfant remains skeptical given his firsthand experience dealing with errors in DPS data. "Some of these allegations of massive voter fraud are premature and irresponsible," said Elfant. "We do not want to undermine the integrity of elections before we know what the answers are."
Elfant says the county is currently leaning against removing voters from the rolls immediately if they do not respond to notice letters within 30 days, pointing out that about 30% of people owed a refund by his Tax Office don't respond to those queries even when money's at stake. Other counties, including Williamson, Bastrop, and Harris, have also declined to take the bait as of yet. In a prescient statement, Beth Stevens of the Texas Civil Rights Project warned that the "alarming" advisory and Paxton's subsequent "vitriolic" statements aim to drum up support for laws during this Lege session to make it harder for eligible Texans to cast a ballot.
Sure enough, the next business day, Monday, Jan. 28, state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, filed Senate Bill 482, which would require a citizenship verification on voter registrations, teeing off a likely messy debate under the pink dome, with the GOP using the SoS "investigation" as ammo. To address the genuine problem of not enough people at the Texas polls, some legislators, such as state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, are working on the flip side to make voting more accessible. Israel's HB 361 would let residents register to vote online – Texas is one of just 13 states in the country that don't have a system in place. This isn't the first time Israel has filed the bill – in 2015 it was left pending in committee, and in 2017 it never received a hearing, underscoring just how truly enthusiastic the GOP is about promoting the right to vote.