AUSTIN – The recent eye-popping claim by the Texas secretary of state’s office – that 95,000 registered voters in Texas may be ineligible because they’re not U.S. citizens – grabbed quick headlines and sprang into President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, rekindling fears of rampant voter fraud by non-U.S. citizens.
Within a week, however, three lawsuits challenging the move and state officials erasing tens of thousands of names from that list have since raised questions about the validity and methodology of the claim.
The clash over Texas voters comes amid allegations by voting rights’ activists of nationwide efforts to purge voters of color from rolls and influence elections, including aggressively going after alleged non-citizens registered to vote.
Since 2013, Florida, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia have conducted illegal purges, according to a recent study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. The report also found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls – or 4 million more than what was removed between 2006 and 2008. Many of those were improperly removed, the report said.
Non-U.S. citizens are not allowed to vote in federal and state elections. But the methodology and data, often driver’s license records, used to check a voter’s citizenship is flawed, said Myrna Perez, the Brennan Center’s director of voting rights and elections project.
“In all of these instances, the number of actual people who should not be on is vanishingly small,” she said. “Our rolls can and should be cleared, but the way to do this is not some overblown ballyhoo, but commonsense maintenance procedures.”
In Texas, Secretary of State David Whitley announced on Jan. 25 that his office was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Public Safety they were not citizens when they registered for driver’s licenses or ID cards. Of those, 58,000 of them had voted in recent elections, the alert said.
Later that day, Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted out a warning: “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” followed by similar warnings from Gov. Greg Abbott and Trump. “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” the president tweeted two days after Whitley’s announcement. “All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID!”
The state’s list of voters has since shrunk by tens of thousands after it was discovered that many legitimate voters were mistakenly included on the list. County election officials have also confirmed others on the list who are naturalized citizens and eligible to vote. Whitley’s office did not return several requests for comment.
Lawsuits by civil and voting rights groups followed. The latest one, filed Monday in federal court, argues that the move violated constitutional and Voting Rights Act protections by intentionally targeting naturalized citizens and voters of color.
The lawsuits filed by The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the civil rights group Demos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argue that Whitley’s office didn’t account for naturalized citizens on the list and called his actions “an unlawful purge of the voting rolls that, by design, will target and threaten the voting rights of eligible naturalized citizens and people of color.”
Logan Churchwell, of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, an Indianapolis-based conservative group that focuses on elections laws, said Texas officials were exercising their legal duty to ensure non-citizens are not included in voter rolls. Driver’s license data are the best records states have to search for ineligible voters, he said.
Most non-citizens register to vote either because they misunderstood the application they were filling out or someone urged them to, Churchwell said. Across the U.S., non-citizen ineligible voters tend to be Asian in the U.S. on temporary visas, not Latinos, he said.
“If you are a U.S. citizen, there’s no way you should be intimidated by this,” Churchwell said. “If you aren’t a U.S. citizen, state officials are performing a public service to get you off the rolls. It could hurt their naturalization efforts later.”
Still, the move rattled activists and local leaders. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Democrat from Austin and chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said he was instantly alarmed when he saw the alert from the secretary of state’s office, especially given the state’s history with voting rights controversies.
Civil rights group have sued Texas over a law that requires certain types of IDs to be able to vote, a practice they say places unfair burdens on minority voters, and over congressional and state House district maps they claim intentionally undercut the voting power of black and Latino voters. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld 10 of the 11 maps in question.
Rodriguez called the recent attempt to purge voters a “targeted intimidation” by Texas Republicans to scare off minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
“You have to look at it from the lens of history,” he said. “Texas really doesn’t have a good history with this.”
The specter of widespread voter fraud by non-citizens in federal and state elections has ramped up in recent years, even as evidence of the illicit practice remains elusive.
After his 2016 election, Trump alleged that millions of ineligible voters cost him the popular vote, which he lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton. A commission he created to look into the issue couldn’t find evidence of widespread fraud and disbanded.
Researchers at the Brennan Center looked at 42 jurisdictions in 12 states, including eight of the 10 jurisdictions with the nation’s largest non-citizen populations, during the 2016 elections. Out of the 23.5 million votes cast in these jurisdictions, election officials referred only 30 instances of suspected noncitizen voting – or .0001 percent of the total.
“If we want to improve our election administrations, we need to deal with facts and deal with evidence,” Perez said. “Not something made up.”
During the Democratic rebuttal Tuesday night to Trump’s State of the Union address, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams warned Americans to take attacks on voting rights seriously.
“Let’s be clear: Voter suppression is real,” Abrams said in her televised remarks. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”
Abrams and her supporters accused Republican leaders of targeting Georgia’s African-American voters through voter suppression tactics and ballot rigging ahead of the November election. Her Republican rival, Brian Kemp, was serving as Georgia’s secretary of state during the contest. She has since launched Fair Fight Action, a group calling for election reform and voter education.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.