Texas to “Pause” Search for Noncitizen Voters as Data Concerns Mount

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The Texas Secretary of State’s office is sending counties an advisory telling them to “pause” efforts to identify noncitizen voters after a lawsuit highlighting data concerns halted the process. The Statesman has more:

In an advisory sent Monday to every county in Texas, the secretary of state’s office told officials to “pause their efforts” to verify the citizenship status of registered voters, halting for now a 5½-week-old investigation that a federal judge recently criticized as ham-handed and flawed.

The advisory also included details on orders U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued last week, including a ban on canceling any voter registrations based on citizenship data compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety and distributed by Secretary of State David Whitley’s agency.

Biery, who called the investigation a solution looking for a problem because there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, also prohibited county elections officials from sending letters demanding proof of citizenship from people on the state-generated list of suspect voters.

Counties may continue to “vet” their lists but cannot contact voters, the court said:

“The Court is confident that the local officials will read and abide by the secretary’s new advisory and this Court’s orders,” Biery wrote Monday. “If not, the Court will address any issues which may arise on a county-by-county basis, as needed.”

Any additional changes can be discussed at a March 11 hearing in his San Antonio courtroom, the judge added.

Biery, who approved the advisory before it was sent, is overseeing three lawsuits seeking to block the citizenship investigation as a violation of voting rights because it questioned the legality of thousands of naturalized U.S. citizens.

Some of the problems were caused by outdated records that were compared with a list of registered voters to identify 95,000 possible noncitizens.

DPS flagged people who said they were noncitizens, but were in the country legally, when they applied for a driver’s license or state identification card. But the IDs are typically valid for six years, and recipients who become naturalized citizens do not have to inform DPS that their status has changed until it’s time to renew the license.

DPS officials also blamed data problems on a miscommunication with the secretary of state’s office over the reliability of some DPS citizenship data.

The Governor is very unhappy about the controversy, and made it clear he blames DPS for the problem – which is imperiling his nomination of SoS-designate Whitley due to opposition from Democrats related to the investigation:

Gov. Greg Abbott, who last week criticized the agency’s handling of citizenship data, took another shot at DPS on Monday.

“The way DPS has treated driver’s licenses in the state of Texas is despicable, has been nonresponsive, and it seems like they deployed that same nonresponsive approach in dealing with the secretary of state on this issue, and that’s unacceptable to me,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s renewed attack on DPS came as he attempts to rescue the nomination of Whitley, his longtime aide.

All 12 Senate Democrats oppose Whitley’s nomination, enough to deny him the support of two-thirds of senators needed to remain on the job. But the rule is two-thirds of senators present on the floor, and Democrats are bracing for a quick vote if up to three members of the minority party are away from the Capitol or otherwise unavailable.

Abbott said Whitley was committed to ensuring that the process of maintaining accurate voter rolls “will be handled as smoothly as possible.”

“One thing he believes in, and one thing I think all Texans can agree upon, is that fair elections mean two things — everyone who is eligible to vote should be able to vote; everyone who is ineligible to vote should be denied the ability to vote,” Abbott said.

Democrats have sharply criticized Whitley’s handling of the investigation, particularly his decision to turn all 95,000 suspect voters’ names over to the Texas attorney general’s office for investigation and possible prosecution, even though Whitley had been warned that the list probably included a significant number of naturalized citizens.

Here’s hoping that this story gives pause (see what I did there?) to future efforts to identify “thousands” of ineligible voters – which inevitably end up not to have the same sweeping effect as originally believed. Voter list maintenance is crucial to high-quality elections, but just like voter registration itself it has to be done carefully – and correctly. The alternative is the kind of controversy and confusion currently playing out in Texas. Stay tuned …

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