AUSTIN, Texas ― Texas Republican leaders face a new federal lawsuit over their attempt to question the voting rights of nearly 100,000 people, this one claiming they personally conspired to suppress the votes of naturalized citizens and racial minorities.
A lawsuit filed early Saturday morning in U.S. district court in Corpus Christi by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund accused several top Texas Republicans of conspiring to suppress suffrage rights “by coordinating an unfounded voter purge campaign with threats of criminal prosecution aimed at naturalized citizen voters.”
The complaint targets the state’s top GOP officials ― Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton ― and seeks damages if a judge finds that their alleged conspiracy violates the Voting Rights Act.
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of several Texas voters and three organizations that run voter registration projects, is the latest in a string of legal challenges seeking to overturn a controversial voter probe that Republican leaders cite as evidence of voter fraud, but critics deride as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the vote of naturalized citizens, who are overwhelmingly of Latin American or Asian birth.
“It’s become clear as the purge effort has unraveled over the course of a week and the state officials have refused to withdraw the purge list that their real intentions are not related to maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls,” MALDEF attorney Nina Perales told HuffPost, “but instead are to take eligible voters off the rolls and intimidate naturalized citizens from voting.”
The MALDEF lawsuit also alleges that the state’s Republican leadership violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and two Voting Rights Act provisions ― one that bars officials from imposing different voter registration standards for different groups and another that prohibits them from racial discrimination.
On Jan. 25, Whitley announced that his office had identified some 95,000 suspected noncitizen voters, including 58,000 who had cast a ballot over the last two decades, by checking voter registrations against Department of Public Safety records. The secretary of state then distributed the list to county voter registrars, asking them to send letters verifying those voters’ citizenship by sending a letter asking them to provide proof. Those who fail to respond in 30 days would be scrubbed from the rolls.
Paxton, the attorney general, trumpeted the news the same Friday it was released, calling it evidence of voter fraud. Abbott echoed the sentiment and called for the state Legislature to enact stricter requirements for Texans to register to vote. The issue gained national attention on Sunday when President Donald Trump repeated the claims of voter fraud from his Twitter account, stating them as fact.
But the list generated by the secretary of state did not provide evidence of a single case of voter fraud, let alone a broad trend involving nearly 100,000 people. DPS, the agency that issues driver’s licenses and state IDs, doesn’t keep up-to-date citizenship records, leaving open the possibility that people who obtained a driver’s license before naturalizing as U.S. citizens and registering to vote would get flagged by the state’s probe.
That’s exactly what has happened. Over the course of the week, the secretary of state’s office itself contacted county officials to tell them to disregard tens of thousands of names that state officials had determined within days were actually citizens. The flaws in the process weren’t limited to flagging citizens who naturalized after taking out a state ID ― Harris County, which encompasses Houston, struck some 400 duplicates off its list.
Democrats characterize the crackdown on suspected noncitizen voting as an attempt to suppress the vote after a midterm election that saw Hispanic turnout skyrocket. Democratic members of the state Legislature, along with more than a dozen civil rights groups, have demanded that Abbott rescind the probe, without success.
“It’s virtually certain that the vast majority of people on this list are citizens eligible to vote.”
Some 78 percent of those flagged in the secretary of state’s list live in counties that voted Democratic in the 2018 U.S. Senate election.
Legal challenges have been quick to mount. The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civic group, sued to block the voter probe Tuesday, alleging that it amounted to voter intimidation in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonprofit, joined the LULAC lawsuit Friday, filing an amended class action complaint to the earlier lawsuit in U.S. district court in San Antonio on behalf of Julie Hilberg, a 54-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in the United Kingdom.
Hilberg, who lives south of San Antonio in Atascosa County, registered to vote in 2015 and cast her first ballot in the following year’s presidential election. She found that she was on the voter probe list after asking the county registrar, according to CLC attorney Paul Smith.
“This program is a gratuitous attack on people’s right to vote that has no factual basis,” Smith told HuffPost. “It’s virtually certain that the vast majority of people on this list are citizens eligible to vote, but they’re going to get this notice saying they have 30 days to prove their citizenship. It’s inevitable that some of them won’t and they’ll get purged.”
The amended complaint filed on Hilberg’s behalf Friday also accuses Whitley and Paxton of violating her First Amendment right to the vote as a form of self expression and 14th Amendment right to cast a ballot freely, calling the voter probe an “unconstitutional voter purge.”
Paxton said he welcomed the opportunity to defend the probe after he was first sued on Tuesday. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the amended complaint.
Even as the Republican-led probe unraveled, Abbott praised his administration’s efforts, describing the crackdown launched by the secretary of state’s office as a “process.”
Republican state legislators have also filed bills in both chambers that would codify the flawed process for identifying suspected noncitizen voters and require the secretary of state’s office to perform the checks annually.
But any process requiring the state to use state driving agency records to verify voter registrations would also surely invite a federal lawsuit, according to Smith.
“It doesn’t matter if you put it in the statute or not,” Smith said. “It’s still unconstitutional.”