Texas Governor Asked Officials To Hunt For Noncitizen Voter Records Before Botched Purge

New emails show the governor's office put in an "urgent" request to identify noncitizen voter records shortly before the 2018 midterm elections.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) pushed officials at the state’s Department of Public Safety to scour driver’s license records for noncitizens and forward that information to the Texas secretary of state, a fellow Republican, in advance of the state’s botched voter purge, according to emails made public Tuesday.

Texas officials would go on to falsely claim that they had found nearly 100,000 noncitizens registered to vote. They later admitted that number was based on deeply flawed data. But some Texas officials knew all along that they could access more information in order to determine whether the people whose driver’s licenses said they were noncitizens were actually noncitizens, the emails suggest — and pushed ahead regardless.

The emails, obtained by the Campaign Legal Center as part of litigation over the purge effort, provide the first look behind the scenes into a highly controversial state effort to identify noncitizens on Texas’ voter rolls. The state has refused to comply with a congressional request to turn over communications and documents related to the January incident.

The saga began in May 2018, when DPS sent then-Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos (R) a list of every adult Texan whose driver’s license records indicated they were not a U.S. citizen. But because many people become citizens after they obtain their driver’s licenses, that information wasn’t enough to tell whether a person was actually a noncitizen.

A few months later, the governor’s office got involved. John Crawford, a DPS official, emailed other employees at his agency in late August saying there was an urgent request from the governor’s office to send driver’s license data to the secretary of state’s office so that officials could try to identify noncitizens on the voter rolls.

“The governor is interested in getting the information as soon as possible,” Amanda Arriaga, the director of DPS’ driver’s license division, added in a follow-up email.

But there was a complication. The secretary of state’s office wanted more information than what it was given in May. Specifically, officials in the secretary of state’s office wanted DPS to provide identifying immigration information for noncitizens, such as alien numbers, that they could use to run Texans’ information against a Department of Homeland Security database to accurately identify noncitizens. Taking that extra step would allow officials to identify people who got a driver's license when they were noncitizens but had since become citizens, Tony Rodriguez, a DPS employee, wrote in an email. But DPS wasn't able to immediately produce the sought immigration information.

Eventually Skylor Hearn, another DPS official, told Arriaga to simply send the secretary of state’s office an updated version of what was provided in May. It’s also unclear why the matter was so urgent. Federal law prohibits states from systematically removing people from the voting rolls within 90 days of an election, and the officials were emailing in that window.

A few days later, Arriaga emailed colleagues again asking how long it would take to run records from the secretary of state’s office through the Department of Homeland Security database. She was unsure if the office could even run a name through the database on its own. “Don’t we need a document?” she wrote.

Keith Ingram, the state’s election director, sent Arriaga an email that same day thanking her for providing new information. He explained the state office was seeking driver’s license information as well as immigration information it could run through the federal DHS database.

But by January, the secretary of state’s office seemed to have abandoned its effort to use the DHS database to verify citizenship. Instead, it matched DPS records from people who indicated they were noncitizens only against the voter rolls and concluded that nearly 100,000 noncitizens could be registered. It is not clear from the emails why the state did not ultimately use the DHS database to verify the status of suspected noncitizens.

After blasting out its announcement of a voter roll purge in January, the Texas secretary of state’s office admitted errors in its analysis. The list it compiled included people who were noncitizens when they got their driver’s licenses but had since become citizens. The state eventually settled with civil rights groups who sued the state over its review and agreed not to cancel anyone’s voter registration based on the analysis. Civil rights groups say the entire episode was an effort to intimidate Latino and naturalized citizens from voting.

David Whitley, who previously served as an Abbott aide, was the acting secretary of state who oversaw the botched review. Texas Democrats refused to confirm him to the role because of the debacle. He resigned his position in late May.

John Wittman, a spokesman for the governor, denied Abbott had any role in the botched January effort.

“This is patently false. Neither the Governor, nor the Governor’s office had spoken with DPS until after the issue surfaced. No one speaks for the Governor’s office, but the Governor’s office,” he said in a statement.