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Texas Officials Begin Walking Back Allegations About Noncitizen Voters

People lined up to vote early at a Houston polling place in October 2018.
Loren Elliott
Getty Images
People lined up to vote early at a Houston polling place in October 2018.

Texas officials are taking a step back on their claim they found 95,000 possible noncitizens in the state's voter rolls. They say it is possible many of the people on their list should not be there.

In a statement Tuesday, the Texas Secretary of State's office said they "are continuing to provide information to the counties to assist them in verifying eligibility of Texas voters."

Last Friday, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley sent an advisory to local registrars asking them to look at their voter rolls. Whitley said his office flagged the names of 95,000 people who at one point in the past 22 years had identified as noncitizens with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that time span, officials said, they also registered to vote.

Voting rights groups have said the state's list is likely a list of naturalized citizens who recently got the right to vote.

The state has provided little information about the methodology it used to compile the list, which has concerned both local election officials and voting rights groups.

"I don't know how they crafted their list," said Travis County's Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant, who manages the county's voter rolls.

Elfant says he has been holding off contacting voters on the original list of alleged noncitizens that the state gave him. He says the list had the names of about 4,500 people who live in Travis County, which includes the city of Austin and its suburbs.

On Tuesday, he told state and other local officials that they should remove a group of voters who were erroneously on their first list.

"The list will shrink significantly from the original 4,500 we received," he said.

Elfant said it's unclear how large the new number will be or whether the updated list will be any more reliable.

"It would have nice if they would have vetted this more carefully before they sent it out to the election administrators," he says. "But it is what it is, I am glad they gave us guidance yesterday because it's going to be less ... difficult for valid voters."

James Slattery, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, says Whitley should rescind the advisory altogether.

"At this point, you have to say the whole process is tainted from the start. We now have very big obvious flaws in the methodology by which this advisory was disseminated," he says. "And it's not just me saying it. It's apparently the Secretary of State's office saying that to county election officials himself."

The state's push comes as Republican-dominated Texas shows signs of becoming increasingly competitive politically. Last fall, Democrats flipped two GOP-controlled House districts and came close to winning a Senate race for the first time in more than two decades.

"The timing of the Texas Secretary of State's announcement — falsely claiming that there are tens of thousands noncitizens on the rolls — we think is directly related to the very high number of Latinos who were registered and were voting in the most recent election," said Nina Perales of MALDEF, a Latino legal defense group.

LULAC, a Latino civil rights group, filed a lawsuit in a federal court in San Antonio on Tuesday. They say the state is violating the Voting Rights Act and intimidating new voters.

"We are going to be able to show that at the end that all of these were legitimate U.S. voters," Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, said. "In the end, this is really about voter suppression, not voter fraud."

Other states, including Florida and Colorado, have tried a similar voter purges aimed at alleged noncitizens. Before the 2012 election, Florida compiled a list of roughly 180,000 names. After local officials combed through it, only 85 people were removed from the rolls.

The focus on possible voting violations comes as Texas lawmakers have just begun their legislative session. One bill under consideration would require people to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote.

Copyright 2019 KUT 90.5

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.