As the nomination of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley faces tough prospects in the Senate, two Republican senators filed bills raising the stakes for his effort to remove suspected noncitizens from voter rolls.
Among other things, Senate Bill 960 and Senate Bill 953, filed late last week, would require voter registrars across the state to kick every person off the voter rolls who at one point said they were not a citizen to any government agency.
Beth Stevens, voting rights program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bills could potentially reduce "protections that a voter has to address a claim that they are a noncitizen.” The nonprofit is one of many groups challenging the state’s effort in court.
“It further adds an element of intimidation of voter registrars,” she said.
Last month, Whitley released a list to local election officials that contained the names of 95,000 people on Texas’ voter rolls his office suspected were not citizens. Whitley advised officials to begin the process of removing those people from their rolls.
The state’s list was compiled by cross-referencing a list of people who told the Texas Department of Public Safety they weren't citizens in the last 22 years, but who also registered to vote during that timeframe.
Local election officials quickly found the state erroneously included thousands of people who had become naturalized citizens between the time they went to DPS and when they registered to vote. In short, there were thousands of eligible voters on the list.
If enacted, SB 960 and SB 953 would require registrars to immediately remove flagged voters from voter rolls. The bills wouldn't require registrars to notify individuals their citizenship was being questioned. SB 960 would also subject any registrar who does not immediately remove those voters to a civil penalty and a possible Class A misdemeanor charge.
SB 960 would also give the Attorney General’s office the power to petition a court to remove a registrar from office if he or she does not kick those voters off the rolls.
“These two bills – and particularly SB 960 – are very much voter suppression on their face,” Stevens said.
SB 960 was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston. Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, weigh in on the issue last year and admonished local officials for not pursuing and removing alleged noncitizens from voter rolls.
"This really strikes at the fabric of the integrity of the whole election process,” Bettencourt said in a written statement last June. “The fact is that non-citizens simply cannot vote in our elections.”
Voting rights groups say voter fraud, including fraud committed by noncitizens, is rare.
A growing number of election officials and voter registrars have halted efforts to purge their voter rolls after lawsuits were filed in federal court, challenging the voter-removal effort. Some say they are waiting for the state to come out with a more accurate list. Others say they are concerned these efforts would violate the voting rights of U.S. citizens.
“I think we can collectively refer to the state and these state actors – and in this case – they are absolutely doubling down on their intent to suppress the vote in the state,” Stevens said.