Texas Politics

Nearly 20 percent of Tarrant voters flagged for citizenship scrutiny didn’t belong on list

Hundreds of EEC (Election Equipment Carrier) voting machines, colored red and blue, are readied every year to be sent to polling places throughout Tarrant County and the state.
Hundreds of EEC (Election Equipment Carrier) voting machines, colored red and blue, are readied every year to be sent to polling places throughout Tarrant County and the state. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Nearly 20 percent of the names of registered voters given to Tarrant County election officials to determine if they are U.S. citizens should not have been on the list.

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia said he learned from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office Tuesday that 1,100 of the 5,800 people whose names were given to him for citizenship reviews had already proved they were U.S. citizens.

“This is a complex project,” Garcia said. “We will wait and let it play out a little bit.”

This is the latest development in the effort announced last week by Texas Secretary of State David Whitely to purge a list of nearly 100,000 people registered to vote who might not be U.S. citizens.

Whitley’s advisory stated that around 58,000 of the people flagged for review voted in at least one Texas election between 1996 and 2018.

Garcia and countless other election officials in Texas were notified by state election officials Tuesday that some of the names on their lists didn’t belong there. Apparently some voters who showed citizenship papers to the Texas Department of Public Safety had not been removed from the list.

A spokesman at the Secretary of State’s Office didn’t answer Tuesday when asked how many names were wrongly on the list. Instead, he released a statement.

“As part of the process of ensuring that no eligible voters are impacted by any list maintenance activity, we are continuing to provide information to the counties to assist them in verifying eligibility of Texas voters,” the statement said. “This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination.”

Civil Rights groups are among those who have asked Whitley to retract his advisory.

“Secretary Whitley’s advisory is causing confusion and uncertainty among county officials tasked with carrying out his recommendations,” said Beth Stevens, the voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We now know with certainty that the 98,000 number originally released by the Secretary is 100 percent inaccurate and founded on bad methodology.”

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

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

The reason: Some people showed identification such as a green card to the DPS while they were getting a driver’s license or identification card. Some may have later gained citizenship, registered to vote and actually voted, but ended up on the list because they initially presented a green card to DPS.

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

In Tarrant County, election officials received data Monday afternoon and began the slow process of sifting through it to determine if any local voters are not U.S. citizens.

Corrected data was provided Tuesday.

“Now we have 4,700 names to look at,” 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 still are 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.

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

It could take months in Tarrant County to determine if any “non-U.S. citizens” cast a ballot.

Critics are calling the state out for mistakes made in this process.

“Texans expect their government to do their due diligence before releasing incorrect and faulty data that could affect tens of thousands of people,” Stevens said Tuesday. “This confusion could have been avoided if the Secretary and other state officials stopped their dangerous crusade to drum up support for their voter suppression agenda.

“Texans expect better from their government.”

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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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.