Voting rights groups and local election officials say the state’s bungled effort to prove there are thousands of noncitizens on the state’s voter rolls is all about making voter registration harder in Texas before the 2020 election.
“The timing for all of this is not a coincidence,” said Beth Stevens, the voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Before the state launched this effort, Republican state Rep. Mike Lang filed a bill that would require voters to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote. On Friday, he applauded the voter purge.
— Rep. Mike Lang (@RepMikeLang) February 1, 2019
Stevens said Republican state Sen. Pat Fallon filed a companion bill in the Senate three days after Texas Secretary of State David Whitley sent an advisory to local registrars. The advisory asked officials to look at their voter rolls and send letters (known as a "Notice of Examination") to people on a list of roughly 95,000 names to ask for proof of citizenship.
“I think there is no question that this is what this is being set up to support,” Stevens said.
Brendan Downes, associate counsel for the Voting Rights Project with The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said similar proof-of-citizenship laws in other states have been “enormously problematic.”
“It’s an incredible hindrance to voter registration drives,” he said. “If you are walking out of a grocery store and someone asks if you’d like to register to vote, most people don’t happen to have a copy of the birth certificate or passport with them.”
Downes also said these bills are unnecessary because the rate in which noncitizens register to vote is “incredibly low.”
Texas already has some of the most cumbersome voter registration laws in the country. Online registration is illegal, and voter registrars are required to be deputized and go through a lengthy training process before registering voters.
Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar, says creating a “show me your papers” law for voter registration would be a mistake.
“That would really put a chill on voter registration in Texas,” he said.
Elfant said his office is working hard to follow the state’s request and comb through the list of alleged noncitizens. He said if there are people who are on the rolls who shouldn’t be there, it would make more sense for state lawmakers to modernize Texas’ voter registration laws – not make registering harder.
After local election administrators raised concerns, the state sent a followup letter Friday, asking them to essentially make sure their lists are correct before sending letters.
"The data we provide to you is the starting point, and your data matches should be reviewed before you send out any Notices of Examination," the Secretary of State's office said in a letter obtained by the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Ultimately, this effort comes as GOP-dominated Texas has begun to show signs of becoming more competitive politically. During the last election, Democrats flipped two GOP-controlled House districts and came close to winning a Senate race for the first time in 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," Nina Perales of MALDEF, a Latino legal defense group, said earlier in the week.
LULAC, another Latino civil rights group, filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday, saying the attempted voter purge violates the Voting Rights Act.
This post has been updated.