Review of Texas voter citizenship formally ends, state won’t pursue flagged voters

Texas election officials are ending an effort to scrutinize the citizenship status of nearly 100,000 voters.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley has agreed to end the review that questioned the citizenship of some Texas voters as part of a settlement to end lawsuits filed against the state by civil rights groups. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery formally signed off on the plan Monday.

“This decision effectively puts an end to this particular purge of the voter rolls pioneered by acting Secretary of State David Whitley,” according to a statement by Common Cause of Texas.

In January, Whitley sent an advisory to election officials statewide announcing that a year-long study found about 95,000 people described as “non-U.S. citizens” who were registered to vote in Texas. His announcement suggested that 58,000 non-citizens may have voted between 1996 and 2018.

But his data didn’t factor in those who through the years became naturalized citizens.

Civil rights groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed lawsuits, claiming that the citizenship review targeted voters of color.

“State officials have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and struck fear and confusion into thousands of voters in order to pursue their voter suppression agenda,” Beth Stevens, Voting Rights Legal Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement. “We are glad that this particular effort was stopped in its tracks and we will remain vigilant to ensure that not one single voter loses their right to vote due to the actions of state officials.”

As part of the settlement, the state owes $450,000 in legal costs, which includes attorney fees. It also requires Whitley to rescind his January order that announced the citizenship review. Voters who received a note about questions regarding their voter registration status will soon receive a letter informing them they are still registered to vote.

The agreement, Whitley said in a statement, “accomplishes our office’s goal of maintaining an accurate list of qualified registered voters while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on naturalized U.S. citizens.

“I will continue to work with all stakeholders in the election community to ensure this process is conducted in a manner that holds my office accountable and protects the voting rights of eligible Texans.”

The settlement was announced on Friday.

Tarrant impact

The Secretary of State’s office — which many said used questionable methodology — didn’t publicly adjust the numbers of Texans flagged for citizenship scrutiny.

But it did reach out to counties across the state, including Tarrant, lowering the number of voters to be reviewed once it realized those people had proved their citizenship.

Tarrant election officials initially were told that about 5,800 voters were on their list. That number quickly dropped by 1,100.

But Tarrant County Election Administrator Heider Garcia said letters were never sent to those voters because of the lawsuits that were filed.

“We were waiting to see what happened, but never sent anything out,” he said.

Garcia said he did receive a note from the state on Friday that a settlement in the case was reached. He’s still waiting to receive more information about it.

The Star-Telegram asked for the list of affected voters in Tarrant County through the Public Information Act, but the request was appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, where officials said state election officials could keep the list confidential.

Illegal voting

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.

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

“It is of paramount importance that Texas voters can have confidence in the integrity, accuracy, and efficiency of the electoral system in which they participate,” Whitley said in his statement.

On Monday, two congressmen sent letters to Whitley and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, following up on their earlier request for documents regarding the effort “to purge voter rolls in Texas.”

“The right to vote is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and Congress has clear authority under the Constitution to investigate any conduct at any level of government that may infringe on this fundamental right,” according to the letter by Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Jamie Raskin, both Democrats from Maryland.

Whitley was nominated to serve as Secretary of State by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas Senate has yet to approve the nomination. If members in the upper chamber don’t approve the nomination before the session ends on May 27, Abbott will have to appoint a new elections administrator for the state.

Critics of the citizenship are urging the governor to nominate a different person to serve in this post.

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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.