Latino Turnout Surged. Then Texas Questioned 98,000 Voters’ Citizenship.

Hispanics helped put Texas in play for Democrats in November. Now, Republicans leaders want nearly 100,000 people to prove they're allowed to vote.

AUSTIN, Texas ― A Republican-led effort to investigate the validity of nearly 100,000 voter registrations will likely hit Latinos hardest.

That’s precisely the point, says Domingo García, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“Instead of the Republican Party appealing to the changing demographics of the Texas electorate, they’re engaging in voter suppression to stop Latino voters from voting because of the closeness of the election between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz in 2018,” García told HuffPost. “And they fear closer elections coming up.”

LULAC sued Texas on Tuesday to halt the voter fraud investigation.

A Texas voter presents a photo ID before casting a ballot.
A Texas voter presents a photo ID before casting a ballot.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley announced Friday that his office had identified about 95,000 registered voters as noncitizens. About 58,000 of them had cast a ballot over the last two decades. Those numbers came from an investigation that began a year ago, according to a news release. By Sunday, President Donald Trump had given the allegations of rampant voter fraud a massive megaphone, calling it “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Must be stopped!” the president said on Twitter.

The Texas secretary of state’s office declined multiple requests for comment. But Whitley’s allegations crumble under minimal scrutiny.

The list culled by the secretary of state resulted from cross-checks with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issues drivers licenses and public identification cards. But because DPS is a state agency, it doesn’t keep reliable citizenship records ― it only asks for proof of citizenship when people apply for state IDs. If someone becomes naturalized after obtaining a driver’s license, which happens frequently, that new citizen isn’t required to check back in to let the state know of the change. An estimated 1 million foreign-born Texans have been naturalized since 1996, and a majority of the state’s immigrant population was born in Latin America.

The lack of evidence behind allegations that Attorney General Ken Paxton branded with the words “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” in a tweet has drawn condemnation from legal and advocacy groups.

The secretary of state’s office upped the number of suspect noncitizen voters to 98,000 on Monday. There were immediate signs that the lists were flawed. Lisa Wise, the top election official in El Paso County, told HuffPost that a naturalized co-worker was on the list. By Tuesday, the secretary of state’s office had begun calling counties to alert them to mistakes on the lists it sent out, the Texas Tribune reported.

The timing of the crackdown has also fueled concern about ulterior political motivations.

For more than two decades, Republicans have held firm control over Texas government, often winning statewide races by margins of 20 percentage points or more. That accomplishment is notable in a majority-minority state, where voters of color skew Democratic. The main reason why Texas demographics haven’t ruptured GOP control is that the state’s voter turnout is among the lowest in the nation, with Latinos in particular turning out at rates far below Anglos, who skew Republican.

November’s midterm elections upended that dynamic.

A surge in turnout across the state narrowed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s margin of victory to just 2.7 percentage points. Justin Nelson, with little funding and less press, came within 3.6 points of ousting Republican Ken Paxton as the state’s attorney general. Democrats picked up a dozen seats in the Texas House, and several of the most conservative politicians either lost or saw their margins of victory dwindle.

“Texas is trending certainly in a purple direction,” Nelson, the Austin lawyer who attempted to unseat Paxton, told HuffPost. “Instead of working to appeal to all Texans, the strategy is to try to intimidate and purge.”

Several factors account for the spike in turnout across the board ― controversy over Trump, long-term efforts by nonprofits to boost Latino turnout and an underdog campaign by former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to unseat Cruz.

The precise role that Latino turnout played in those results won’t be clear until the U.S. census’ American Community Survey is released, which normally comes out in the spring. But turnout more than doubled compared with the last midterm election in several border counties, where the population is overwhelmingly Latino and largely votes Democratic.

“We should be very cautious with accepting this information from the state, especially after a surge in Latino voter turnout,” Cristina Tzintzún, director of Jolt, a Latino youth voter mobilization group, told HuffPost. “There should be a thorough investigation about why this data came out now, how it was produced, if it was accurately produced and why it came out so close to an election when we had such high Latino turnout.”

Texas demographics make it all but certain that the list contains mostly Hispanic names. Several Spanish surnames are very common, and state authorities often incorrectly enter compound last names into databases, which critics say increases the likelihood of falsely matching a U.S. citizen’s name to a noncitizen’s.

Texas Republicans have been on a mission for over a decade to cast more scrutiny on voter registrations. In 2011, the state passed a sweeping voter ID law that required people to present photo identification before casting a ballot. A federal judge later curbed the law’s implementation, but Texas still requires voters to either present one of several forms of photo ID or a document proving that obtaining one imposed an unnecessary burden.

“We should be very cautious with accepting this information from the state, especially after a surge in Latino voter turnout.”

- Cristina Tzintzún, director of Jolt

The efforts to impose stricter vetting of registered voters are still alive in the Texas Legislature and reflect the secretary of state’s logic. State Rep. Mike Lang (R-Granbury) filed a bill in November that would set into law the flawed process of cross-checking registrations with DPS and give voters 60 days to prove their citizenship after receiving a letter from the secretary of state’s office or be dropped from rolls.

If the bill were to pass in its current form, it would violate the National Voter Registration Act, according to Nina Perales, the vice president of litigation for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Our bill seeks to codify basically what they’re seeking to do internally,” Lang’s chief of staff, Zach Maxwell, told HuffPost. “We’re still pushing it.”

Maxwell acknowledged that the secretary of state’s list does not prove any wrongdoing and that cross-checks with DPS would lead to false positives, likely placing additional burdens on naturalized citizens. Lang is open to revising that provision of the bill, he said.

“We understand that there are potential situations where there could be false positives, but at the same time we do know that there is a hole in the system,” Maxwell said. “We’re trying to be as fair as possible. We have due process in this country. You are innocent until proven guilty.”

But Friday’s announcement takes the battle over voter registration requirements out of the Legislature and puts it in the hands of state agencies, where Democratic lawmakers have less ability to debate them.

Texas Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) has examined the issue of voter fraud in the past and concluded that it does occur but that cases are isolated and rare. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which he chairs, is investigating whether Secretary of State Whitley exceeded his legal authority by launching the probe.

“Last time we looked at this, were there legal permanent residents who voted in Texas elections? Yes. Was it very rare? Yes,” Anchia told HuffPost. “Are the president and Texas politicians using this as a dog whistle and a possible pretext to suppress votes? That’s my belief.”

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