Texas Politics

Texas’ efforts to purge voter lists: Protect elections or suppress votes?

Texas woman convicted of voter fraud says she voted Republican

In a jailhouse interview with the Star-Telegram, Rosa Ortega said she has lost custody of her children and will likely be deported when her eight-year sentence is up.
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In a jailhouse interview with the Star-Telegram, Rosa Ortega said she has lost custody of her children and will likely be deported when her eight-year sentence is up.

Civil rights groups on Monday called on top election officials in Texas to back down from an effort to identify and purge a list of nearly 100,000 people registered to vote who may not be U.S. citizens.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley sent an advisory on Friday stating that around 58,000 of the people flagged for review voted in at least one Texas election between 1996 and 2018.

“With this new advisory, Texas officials have taken another page straight out of the voter suppression handbook,” Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement. “The ‘investigation’ outlined by the Secretary of State is woefully inadequate and risks purging thousands of eligible Texans from the voting rolls.

“The advisory is another attempt from state officials to drum up support for a radical anti-voter agenda in the current Legislative session and in other states with like-minded officials. With such irresponsible assertions now in the public, we call on the Secretary of State to immediately rescind this advisory.”

Voter fraud has been a longtime concern for Texas lawmakers who have said that a law was needed requiring people to show a photo ID when voting, despite a small number of convictions.

On Friday, Whitley’s advisory suggested that names on the list be checked to determine people’s citizenship.

The list is made up of people who showed some sort of identification, such as a green card, to the Texas Department of Public Safety while they were getting a driver’s license or identification card. Such a person may have later gained citizenship, registered to vote and actually voted, but ended up on the list because they had presented a green card to DPS.

Whitley’s notice to counties was sent to indicate that the names on the list should be considered “WEAK” matches.

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund officials cautioned Texas election officials to be careful — or lawsuits could follow.

“Targeting naturalized citizens for voter purges is unconstitutional and will do lasting damage to the Texas electorate,” Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the legal defense fund, said in a written statement.

Illegally voting is a second-degree felony, punishable by two to 20 years in prison.

In 2017, a Grand Prairie mother of four, Rosa Maria Ortega, made national news when she was sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally voting. Ortega, who has a green card and isn’t a U.S. citizen, lost an appeal to the 2nd Court of Appeals late last year. It is uncertain if she plans to appeal that verdict.

Tarrant review

Election officials across Texas on Monday began receiving information from the state about people in their areas who may or may not be eligible voters.

Tarrant election officials received data Monday afternoon and began the slow process of sifting through it to determine if any Tarrant voters are not U.S. citizens. Their list had 5,800 names.

“There’s a lot of work to be done before any conclusions can be reached,” said Heider Garcia, Tarant County’s elections administrator.

Garcia said election officials have some discretion while reviewing data, such as if they catch typos or the mislabeling of fathers and sons who share the same names, differentiated only by a Sr. or Jr.

If there are still questions about whether a person is eligible to vote, election officials may send out notices asking for a person’s proof of citizenship within 30 days.

Those flagged on the state’s list had originally provided DPS with papers that indicated they were legally in the country. They may have formally become a citizen in the years since.

Whitley, who took office late last year, said he turned the voting data over to Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office for review.

Many are concerned about what comes next.

“Given the long history of anti-immigrant policies and attempts at voter suppression by our Texas officials, we cannot trust that this investigation has been conducted in a fair and non-discriminatory manner,” Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “History has shown that voter fraud is extremely rare and efforts to identify unlawful voting en masse have proven to be highly inaccurate.”

Illegal voting?

As for the new data, Garcia said it’s too early to make any conclusions from the data provided to the Tarrant County elections office.

“Obviously we will look at it and see what we have in the data,” he said. “I know there’s going to be a lot of interest.

There are more than 15.8 million voters across Texas, including more than 1.1 million in Tarrant County.

“Integrity and efficiency of elections in Texas require accuracy of our state’s voter rolls, and my office is committed to using all available tools under the law to maintain an accurate list of registered voters,” Whitley said last week.

Some are not convinced this is truly a problem.

“This appears to be yet another example of the ‘voter fraud’ bogeyman being used to justify a piece of legislation that will ultimately suppress votes,” said Anthony Gurierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas.

On Monday, state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, filed Senate Bill 482, geared to require voter registrations in Texas to include a citizenship verification.

Minnie Barela, a blind 76-year-old Fort Worth woman, says a woman recently indicted in connection with an organized voter fraud ring had knocked on her door in 2016 and offered to help her vote.

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.