On 25 January 2019, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton made a headline splash when he tweeted a “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” stating that the Texas secretary of state had discovered some 95,000 non-U.S. citizens had voter registration records in Texas, and that about 58,000 of those registrants had (illegally) voted in elections:
VOTER FRAUD ALERT: The @TXsecofstate discovered approx 95,000 individuals identified by DPS as non-U.S. citizens have a matching voter registration record in TX, approx 58,000 of whom have voted in TX elections. Any illegal vote deprives Americans of their voice.
— Ken Paxton (@KenPaxtonTX) January 25, 2019
Predictably, one group quickly seized on this announcement as proof that large-scale voter fraud was taking place — including President Trump:
58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID! @foxandfriends
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2019
Meanwhile, opponents maintained that the Texas efforts were an excuse for attempting to purge immigrants (who are more likely to vote Democrat) from voter rolls:
It took little time for Republicans to cite the state’s preliminary findings in fundraising pleas: “We knew it was happening and now we have proof,” said an email blast sent three hours after Paxton’s press release.
But voter advocacy groups warn that [the] announcement is an attempt to intimidate voters, and the contention that voter fraud is rampant has been repeatedly discounted.
“There is no credible data that indicates illegal voting is happening in any significant numbers, and the Secretary’s statement does not change that fact,” said Beth Stevens, Voting Rights Legal Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Stevens said she is concerned about how the state identified the suspected non-citizen voters.
“The secretary’s actions threaten to result in tens of thousands of eligible voters being removed from the rolls, including those with the least resources to comply with the demand to show papers,” Stevens said.
Stevens said the latest efforts — and the overzealous celebration from Paxton and others — are concerning because the next step will be that “the state is going to use this highly suspect ‘investigation’ to try to pass laws that will make it harder for eligible Texas voters to cast a ballot that counts.”
Secretary of State David Whitley issued an advisory to county voter registrars noting that his office was flagging voter registrations of persons who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) with forms of documentation (such as a work visa or green card) indicating they were not citizens at the time they applied for a driver’s licenses or ID cards. This process identified some 95,000 individuals, of whom about 58,000 had cast a ballot in one or more elections between 1996 to 2018.
Critics seized on a number of issues to challenge the suggestion that Paxton’s announcement meant tens of thousand of cases of voter fraud had definitively been uncovered:
1) The secretary of state’s advisory stated that the flagged records should all be considered “WEAK” matches.
In a practical sense, this means that counties may not automatically revoke the flagged voter registrations without first mailing notice to those registrants requesting “information relevant to determining the voter’s eligibility for registration” and warning them that “the voter’s registration is subject to cancellation if the registrar does not receive an appropriate reply on or before the 30th day after the date the notice is mailed.”
2) The announcement referenced voting records spanning a 22-year period (1996 to 2018).
3) Persons who were non-citizens at the time they obtained driver’s licenses or ID cards may have since become naturalized citizens, but they are not required to go back to DPS and change their status,
making their voter registration records subject to being inaccurately flagged for review:
It’s possible that individuals flagged by the state — who provided DPS with documentation that indicated they were authorized to be in the country — could have become naturalized citizens since they obtained their driver’s license or ID card. A spokesman for the secretary of state said officials are “very confident” that the data received from DPS is “current.”
But without additional verification, you can’t say these individuals all engaged in illegal voting, said Chris Davis, the head of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.
“People get naturalized,” Davis said. “It’s entirely too early to say that.”
“I hope that the Secretary of State and the Attorney General are extremely careful to ensure that they make accurate matches and do not unnecessarily alarm the public or falsely accuse people who are eligible to vote,” said state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. “For example, a legal permanent resident with a driver’s license who becomes a citizen is not required to go back to DPS and change their status. So just because someone is listed as a non-citizen in DPS records, that does not mean they still are.”
Indeed, with a few days, the Texas Tribune reported, the Texas secretary of state’s office was informing counties that “some of those voters” — a “substantial number” in some cases — didn’t belong on the lists it sent out:
After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.
Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.
The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.
“We’re going to proceed very carefully,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County, where 29,822 voters were initially flagged by the state. A “substantial number” of them are now being marked as citizens, Ray said.
As the Denver Post observed, a similar effort undertaken in Colorado in 2012 ended up verifying less than 1% — if even that much — of nearly 4,000 voter registrations flagged for being tied to suspected non-citizens:
[Secretary of State Scott] Gessler sent out 3,903 letters to suspected noncitizen voters asking them to either prove their citizenship or take themselves off voter rolls. Those on the list were identified because they had used noncitizen documents — such as a green card — to obtain their driver’s licenses.
But the letters went out before Gessler’s office got access to the federal database, and even when he did get access, only 1,416 of those could be checked because there were not alien registration numbers in the federal database for the remainder.
Of those, 141 came up as noncitizens in the database, and of those, Gessler’s office said, 35 came up with a voting history — meaning they had voted at least once in an election in Colorado.
Elena Nuñez, executive director at Common Cause … said it’s still not proven that the 35 people Gessler pointed to are not citizens. She said the federal database contains errors sometimes and that voters still would have to be given the chance to prove they are citizens before county clerks could remove them from rolls.
What proportion of the 95,000 voter records flagged in Texas will eventually prove to be genuine cases of illegal registrations by non-citizens remains to be seen.
On 27 February 2019, the Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio blocked the removal of any voters and, according to his ruling, only 80 of the original 98,000 names on the list had been identified as ineligible to vote. Later, the New York Times reported that the Texas secretary of state agreed to rescind the advisory from January 2019.