Point Austin: “Show Us Your Papers”
The Whitley fiasco and the persistence of voter suppression
While I can't recommend viewing the entire hearing – binge-watching legislative committees imposes psychological risks – readers might consider an online taste of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley's Feb. 7 testimony before the Senate Committee on Nominations. The official subject was Whitley's potential confirmation in his current post, but the headline matter was his handling of the "noncitizen voter" list he released a couple of weeks earlier. Although there will be plenty of competition, it will be hard to beat Whitley's performance as an illustration of bureaucratic malice wedded to incompetence.
Senators grilled Whitley about the list, its provenance, and its reckless distribution to county election officials with no due diligence to confirm its accuracy, which had already been thoroughly disproved. Whitley couldn't or wouldn't answer senators' questions with any substance – pressed by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, on the meaning of voter suppression, the best Whitley could offer was, "It's irrelevant." Eventually, it was possible to feel a bit of sympathy for Whitley, an errand boy for a policy not really under his control. "Secretary of State," although an impressive-sounding and potentially substantial office, has devolved into a placeholder for political stair-climbers, often the Highest-Ranking Hispanic Republican.
Whitley, a longtime aide to Greg Abbott, assumed the position quite recently, and his notorious list – compiled via the apples-and-oranges procedure of collating 22 years of voting records with drivers' license applications – was begun under his predecessor, Rolando Pablos. It fell to Whitley to make the public release, quickly echoed by Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Abbott as evidence of a widespread pattern of "voter fraud." It is instead one more prominent piece of evidence that the Republican campaign strategy going forward rests heavily on discouraging or suppressing as many votes – especially those of Hispanic voters – as officially possible.
Getting the Facts
Whatever eventually remains of the list, the sensational headlines it engendered (including via Trump's Twitter feed) have already done their work. When the 95,000 original names have been whittled to a negligible handful, the GOP will fan another wave of flames: "See, we told you so."
I spoke with Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant earlier this week about the Travis County list, which began with about 4,500 names, now reduced through staff review (as of Feb. 7) by about a third. Elfant said that some local officials have dismissed the lists as "ridiculous" and that if he did the same, "Democrats would cheer me and Republicans would jeer me, but we wouldn't have the facts." Instead, he's accepted the responsibility of reviewing the names, file by file, to determine if anyone on the current rolls ever registered or voted in error. He cautioned, "People taking the effort to commit a felony on a voter registration card" – and thus signing their names to the offense – "is extremely rare.
"Most of the issues that we're going to ultimately find," Elfant said, "will have been clerical errors. We're a paper-based system, and I'm pretty sure that there are going to be people who checked that they weren't citizens, accidentally. I think that there are going to be people who weren't citizens, but thought that they could vote because they were legal residents or had a green card. There may be people who accidentally checked that they were citizens." In other words, at great expense in time and resources, local officials are doing the work the state officials should have done before ever releasing this bogus list. (Elfant is updating county progress online: Look for NonCitizenDataFactSheet.pdf.)
"What I don't want to do," said Elfant, "is to send out these 'show me your papers' letters to people who are most probably citizens."
Skewing the Vote
Elfant generously suggested that the episode may eventually become a "teaching moment" for data verification (he's simultaneously pressing the feds for more accurate citizenship information), but he allowed himself one shot at state officials: "The way they went about it was premature and irresponsible. I wish they would have spent more time on their process than their press release." I'm not so generous – the press releases were the point of the entire dishonest exercise, and will be followed by more sensational accusations when a very few people who may have voted by mistake find themselves in Paxton's bloviating crosshairs.
It would be reasonable to applaud aggressive verification of the voting rolls if the Republican leadership devoted one tenth as much energy to making certain that every eligible voter has sufficient information, time, and resources to register and vote, in equitably drawn legislative and congressional districts. Instead, the party currently in power devotes enormous resources to voter miseducation, discouragement, outright suppression, and finally to radical gerrymandering to undermine the power of voters to choose their own representatives. Whitley may find himself a political casualty of this strategy – but the GOP can undoubtedly find another placeholder to maintain the hustle.