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Official admits mistakes in voter probe, apologizes for rollout

14 Feb

In a letter to all the members of the Legislature that was made public Thursday, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley admitted that more care should have been given to producing an accurate list before revealing last month that his office had flagged 95,000 registered voters as possible non-U.S. citizens.

Whitley also apologized for confusion created by his Jan. 25 announcement and promised to take steps to ensure “a more accurate and efficient” process for identifying potential noncitizen voters in the future.

Appointed secretary of state by Gov. Greg Abbott in mid-December, Whitley was named in three federal lawsuits after his office directed county elections officials to investigate the citizenship status of the suspect voters and Whitley forwarded the list to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate and prosecute illegally registered voters.

County officials, however, quickly verified that many of the names on Whitley’s list were naturalized U.S. citizens and were eligible to vote — including a substantial number who had registered to vote at a Department of Public Safety office after showing proof of citizenship.

After consulting with the DPS, county officials and lawmakers, Whitley wrote in a letter sent Wednesday, “I discovered that additional refining of the data my office provides to county voter registrars, both in substance and timing, is necessary to ensure a more accurate and efficient list maintenance process.”

Democrats and civil rights groups have reserved some of their harshest criticism for Whitley’s original announcement, which emphasized that 58,000 of the suspect voters had cast a ballot in at least one election since 1996.

Paxton responded with a tweet that began, “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” and Abbott thanked Whitley and Paxton “for uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration.” President Donald Trump took the announcement as proof that “voter fraud is rampant.”

The three federal lawsuits, including one that has a hearing Tuesday in San Antonio, seek to block the voter investigation as a Republican-led voter suppression effort that targets naturalized citizens in particular.

In his letter, Whitley insisted that his investigation, required under state law, was designed to ensure that all voters play by the same rules and that “everyone who is qualified to vote has access to the ballot box.” The wording of the announcement, however, obscured that goal, he wrote.

“I recognize this caused some confusion about our intentions, which were at all times aimed at maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the voter rolls. To the extent my actions missed the mark, I apologize,” he wrote.

In hindsight, he added, more time should have been devoted to working with the DPS and the counties “to further eliminate anyone from our original list who is, in fact, eligible to vote.”

Whitley must gain the approval of two-thirds of senators to remain as secretary of state.

The first step in that process was a confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Nominations Committee, where Whitley faced skeptical questions from Democrats over referring the original list to Paxton for investigation and for emphasizing that 58,000 suspect voters had cast a ballot in the previous 22 years.

Whitley acknowledged that the list could have missed naturalized citizens because it was based on comparing registered voters against a DPS database of people who said they were not citizens, but in the country legally, when they applied for a driver’s license or identification card. Those applicants are not required to inform the DPS if they later become U.S. citizens.

The Nominations Committee, with four Republicans and three Democrats, met Thursday but did not vote on Whitley’s confirmation. Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, the committee chairwoman, has given no timeline for a possible vote.