AUSTIN, Texas ― The state’s top election official on Thursday refused to say his office erred when it publicized an inaccurate list of 95,000 suspected noncitizens on the state’s voter rolls and sent the names to the attorney general for potential prosecution.
In his first comments since setting off a firestorm that has resulted in three federal lawsuits, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley (R) downplayed concerns that his office used unverified data to stir up fears of voter fraud. Instead, he described the inquiry as an ongoing process of information-sharing between state and county officials.
“We’re following state law and federal law in this procedure,” Whitley said, speaking at a confirmation hearing before a Texas Senate committee.
But under questioning from Democratic lawmakers, Whitley struggled to explain why, in a press release two weeks ago, his office said 95,000 noncitizens could be on the voter rolls even though that data hadn’t been verified with local election officials. Whitley said he issued the press release because his office does not have investigative authority and he wanted to quickly get the data to officials who could act on it.
“I was confident it was the best data,” Whitley said of the information he received from state officials, adding that he had received assurances it was accurate. Whitley said he did not personally review the data before it was sent out.
County officials are investigating the list of suspected noncitizens and have already identified substantial errors ― at least 20,000 people have been removed from the list. The county officials say the secretary of state’s office contacted them shortly after sending out the list and informed them the data they’d sent included several people whom the state had already verified as citizens.
Local officials believe the list of suspected noncitizens may continue to shrink with more investigating, and some have said the unsubstantiated public statements about voter fraud from Whitley and state Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) have undermined confidence in elections.
Civil rights groups accused Whitley and Paxton of prematurely sending out unverified data and stirring up fears of voter fraud. County officials can now use that data to request that voters prove their citizenship within 30 days or be removed from the rolls. The groups say the process discriminates against naturalized citizens because the Texas Department of Public Safety does not keep updated citizenship records.
Sophia Lin Lakin, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project who is representing plaintiffs suing Whitley over the review, said Whitley’s quick action on the list of suspected noncitizens was reckless.
“Secretary Whitley’s irresponsible decision to forward his purge list to law enforcement authorities knowing that it very likely contained the names of naturalized citizens properly on the rolls is just another indication of the apparent disregard for the immigrant community in Texas that prompted him to initiate a purge program that by its nature threatens the voting rights of naturalized citizens,” she said in an email.
During Thursday’s hearing, Whitley refused to say his office had made mistakes in the data it sent to state officials. Instead, he said the process of verifying voters’ citizenship was meant to be “collaborative,” and that his office had always intended for local officials to verify the data. He said his office conducted 10 training sessions before sending out the data, and that they’d warned election officials the data was likely to contain errors.
Texas state Sen. José Menéndez (D) asked how the data could be accurate if it didn’t contain up-to-date citizenship records.
“If they don’t have the naturalization data, maybe it’s not the best data in the state,” he said.
Whitley said he consulted with Abbott’s office and Paxton’s office before issuing the Jan. 25 press release. One of three federal lawsuits filed over the last two weeks to halt the voter inquiry accuses the three officials of conspiring to suppress the voting rights of people of color.
During one remarkable exchange with state Sen. Royce West (D), Whitley repeatedly declined to define the term “voter suppression.”
“Anecdotally, I have heard voter suppression talked about,” Whitley said. When West pressed him to define the term, Whitley said his definition was “irrelevant.” He added that anecdotally, he believed it referred to acts that discourage people from voting.
“Anecdotally, I have heard voter suppression talked about.”
Whitley’s comments are significant because federal judges have indeed found that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color ― both through a voter ID law passed in 2013 and via boundaries for electoral districts. (Appeals courts have subsequently upheld revised versions of those measures.) Plaintiffs in a redistricting lawsuit say Texas’ intentional discrimination is so pronounced that moving forward, the state should have to clear its voting changes with the federal government.
“Secretary Whitley’s testimony today only deepened our concerns regarding the flawed and inaccurate voter purge list that his office sent to counties two weeks ago,” Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director at the Texas Civil Rights Project ― which is also suing Whitley ― said Thursday. “Instead of taking full responsibility for this debacle, he passed the buck to the previous Secretary and the Department of Public Safety.”
“Most alarming for voters,” Stevens said, “the Secretary admitted that he sent this list of individuals to county officials and the Attorney General before knowing all of the facts to determine voter eligibility.”
State Sen. John Whitmire (D) appeared briefly at Thursday’s hearing to register his opposition to Whitley’s voter probe, noting that the list targeted an intern in his office. “It’s shocking,” Whitmire said.
The experience of Whitmire’s intern, Belén Iñiguez, underscores some of the problems critics pointed out at the hearing. She moved to Austin from the town of Tyler to work at this year’s legislative session.
Having naturalized last year, Iñiguez feared she might be on the secretary of state’s list of suspected noncitizen voters. A call to Smith County election officials confirmed she was.
But the letter giving her 30 days to prove her citizenship or have her voter registration revoked went out Jan. 31 to her old address in Tyler, where she never would have received it.
“There was no freaking way for me to find out that I was on that list other than calling,” Iñiguez told HuffPost.
Despite the concerns raised by Democratic lawmakers, the Republican-majority nominations committee is likely to approve Whitley’s nomination. The committee is slated to vote on the matter next week.
Roque Planas reported from Austin. Sam Levine reported from New York.