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Secretary of State

Vote centers approved for Harris County

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Today, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley approved Harris County as one of six Texas counties with a population of more than 100,000 to participate in the Countywide Polling Place Program. With over 2 million registered voters, this makes Harris County the largest county in the country to implement this program. The state program allows eligible counties to establish non-precinct based Election Day Voting Centers.

“The voters of Harris County have made it clear that a Countywide Polling Place Program would have a positive impact on elections and I am confident that the transition to a Countywide Polling Place Program will be successful”, announced Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

Voters will now be able to vote anywhere in Harris County on Election Day, beginning with the May 4, 2019 Joint Election. All elections, including general, special, joint, primaries, and runoffs will be recommended to use the Countywide Polling Place Program.

“The Countywide Polling Place Program will allow more Houstonians to exercise their most precious right, the right to vote”, stated Dr. Trautman.

Voters can find more information on the Countywide Polling Place Program by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here and here for the background. The Vote Centers section of the County Clerk page is here, and the plan outline is here.

The Chron story has more:

Proponents of the countywide system tout it as a way to boost voter participation. Supporters also say it eventually could cut election costs because counties can replace smaller precinct sites with larger voting centers. More than 50 Texas counties successfully have implemented the countywide program, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, and some have seen an uptick in voter participation.

Trautman has said she would start by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to traditional precinct polling sites, which she would not close before first seeking the approval of residents.

Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political analyst, said Trautman should wait at least a few election cycles before removing any precinct sites to avoid disenfranchising voters.

“Harris County is basically a state,” Aiyer said. “So, what we’re talking about is a pretty fundamental change of an electoral process for an area, or at least a population base, that’s larger than 25 states.”

Some concerns, Aiyer said, include the vast length of Harris County’s ballot and the lack of straight-ticket voting in 2020, the first time Texas voters will be without that option. The change likely will create longer lines at the polls, Aiyer noted.

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson decried the move, contending that Trautman, “in a rush to revamp Harris County voting,” is using unreliable technology that would actually depress turnout.

“Trumpeting her new system as voter-approved, Ms. Trautman, in fact, hand-picked groups to support her voting center scheme despite the risk it poses to all Harris County voters,” Simpson said in a statement. “Her unproven voting center scheme might work in a smaller county. But in the large and diverse community of Harris County, it risks vote dilution and discouraging, confusing, and disenfranchising countless voters on election day.”

Lubbock County became the first in Texas to run a countywide polling operation in 2006, under what was then a pilot program enacted by the Legislature. Since then, state lawmakers have made the program permanent, and Travis County, with about 788,000 registered voters as of the November midterms, is the largest Texas county to use the voting centers.

Trautman deliberately sought state approval before the May elections so she could roll out the program during a low-turnout election, instead of during the November 2019 city election or 2020 presidential election when turnout runs much higher. Harris County must secure approval from the secretary of state’s office after the May 4 election to continue using the countywide polling program.

Still, Simpson said he worried that voting centers would be unable to communicate electronically on Election Day to ensure no one votes more than once. County officials have said otherwise, and the state’s elections director, Keith Ingram, wrote in a letter to County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday that documentation provided by the county reflects that its polling devices can update the master voter database even upon losing cellular connection.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican whom Trautman defeated, said during the campaign he was open to countywide polling sites. The option is only available, Stanart said, because the county began using electronic poll books, or modified iPads, that communicate with each other to prevent people from voting more than once.

Not that there’s ever a reason to listen to Paul Simpson, but every one of his objections has been contradicted. The vote to apply for state approval was unanimous in Commissioners Court as well, so at every step of the way this has been a bipartisan process. Plus, you know, this is something Trautman explicitly campaigned on, and she won. As they say, elections have consequences.

Blaming DPS

Meet your new scapegoat for the SOS non-citizen voter advisory fiasco.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Amid the fallout surrounding his administration’s botched review of the voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott has picked a side.

Who’s to blame for the state’s mistaken challenge to the voting rights of thousands of Texans? The longtime head of the Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw.

During a radio interview last week, Abbott slammed McCraw’s department for not “adequately” communicating to the secretary of state that the data at heart of the controversial voter review was “admittedly flawed.” And he specifically passed the blame onto McCraw for “faulty information” that “hamstrung” the state’s review efforts.

Then on Monday, Abbott referred to McCraw’s alleged mistakes as “unacceptable,” describing the review as a mishandled “law enforcement issue.”

It was a striking, two-punch rebuke of a high-ranking state official who has long backed Abbott’s priorities, particularly on security concerns at the Texas-Mexico border. But recent court testimony and documents obtained by The Texas Tribune paint a more complicated picture. In reality, the voter citizenship review was flawed in two major ways.

For one, officials from the Texas secretary of state’s office based their review on data DPS had warned would not be up-to-date. In addition, miscommunication between different state offices led state election officials to misinterpret the citizenship status of 25,000 Texans who had already proved to the state that they were citizens.

But Abbott has downplayed Secretary of State David Whitley’s role in the foul-up as Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide, faces a tough confirmation fight in the Senate that could result in him losing his job. That has left opponents of Whitley’s nomination questioning Abbott’s motivations.

“I think the governor is either misinformed or he’s trying to save his nominee despite what the facts are,” said Chad Dunn, one of the civil rights lawyers suing the state over the constitutionality of the review effort. “I don’t think there’s any evidence to support the governor’s comments.”

You should read on for the details, but this is a pretty good summary. Steve McCraw is a longtime hack and hatchet man, and I’m sure not going to hold anyone back from using him as a punching bag. This is still a remarkable evasion of the facts and defense of a guy who is both clearly beloved by Greg Abbott (warning: you may feel the need to brush your teeth after reading that sticky-sweet profile of Whitley) and in way over his head. At some level, I don’t care whose fault this idiocy was. It’s very clear that the intent was to bulldoze people off of the voter rolls without any concern about accuracy, and it’s equally clear that a similar effort done with more care and deliberation would have been much less controversial. It also would have ended up with a scope of maybe a couple hundred voters, which isn’t going to look nearly as sexy in a Ken Paxton press release. Them’s the breaks.

One more thing:

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley will tell Texas counties they may continue to look into the citizenship statuses of voters on his list of suspected noncitizens, according to an advisory approved by a federal judge Monday.

The advisory, which will be sent to all 254 counties in the state, notifies election offices that they must abide by the Feb. 27 court order that bars them from alerting people on the list that they’re under examination or removing anyone from the rolls without approval from the court and “conclusive” evidence that they’re ineligible.

It also clarifies that the counties may still vet voters on the list as long as they do not directly contact them. If, however, a voter reaches out to a county elections administrator first, the advisory says, then the office may communicate with them.

See here for the background. The effect of this is likely to be a continuing stream of voters being removed from the list of alleged non-citizens. As long as that is all that it is, it’s fine by me.

Senate committee advances Whitley nomination

I’ll take Pointless Wastes of Time for $200, Alex.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A Texas Senate committee voted Thursday to advance the nomination of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley — the most forward motion he’s made in weeks in a stalled nomination that faces increasingly steep odds.

After a 4–3 vote along party lines, with all the committee’s Republicans backing Whitley and all Democrats voting against him, Whitley can be considered by the full Senate, where he’d need a two-thirds majority that he doesn’t appear to currently have.

[…]

Whitley, who appeared before the committee three weeks ago for a two-hour grilling over the bungled review effort, had been left pending in committee in its last two hearings even as other nominees sailed through. That seemed to bode poorly for his chances. The governor’s office has continued to back him “100 percent.”

And Gov. Greg Abbott said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Democrats change their minds on Whitley.

“We’ve had ongoing conversations with them and we maintain good relationship with them. And so we’ll see how things turn out,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty. And he defended Whitley’s handling of the bungled probe, saying “secretary of state was relying on data from the Texas Department of Public Safety that was admittedly flawed by DPS, and DPS did not adequately communicate that to the secretary of state.”

“So the secretary of state was hamstrung by faulty information from the Department of Public Safety from the beginning and did not know that, and so the part of the fault goes to Steve McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety for causing the error in the first place,” Abbott said.

Don’t forget to blame the counties, too. There’s lots of room under that bus. I understand why Abbott is loyal to his former minion, but there’s gotta be some other party apparatchik with less baggage and more competence who can do this job. I have no idea who Abbott thinks is being wooed here, but in the absence of a real, genuine mea culpa plus a solid plan to get this right and a pledge to oppose any fruit of the poisoned tree bills, I see no reason why any Democratic Senator would give a damn.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey suggests a way that Whitley could get confirmed: Not having all Senators present at the time his nomination is brought up for a vote, as two thirds of those who do vote are what is needed for confirmation. David Dewhurst tried this trick to pass the voter ID bill a couple of times in 2007, before the two thirds rule was changed to allow voter ID to pass on a simple majority. It’s definitely something to watch out for.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

Of course there are bills to do something with that bogus SOS advisory

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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.

[…]

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.”

SB953 was authored by Sen. Pat Fallon. Of course Bettencourt would have a hand in this. He made his bones as Harris County Tax Assessor finding many creative and legally questionable ways to purge voters he didn’t like. There’s a reason why voter registration numbers in the county were flat for so long. Whether this particular ploy will work or not remains to be seen. These bills can probably pass if the leadership wants them to, but in the absence of a push they may die the usual death by natural causes. I’ll try to keep an eye on them.

Testimony ends in SOS advisory lawsuit

Now we wait for a ruling. We’ve already sort of gotten one, but it’s not all official yet.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As part of an ongoing flurry of litigation in federal court here over the state’s bungled citizenship review of its voter rolls, a federal judge on Monday told a handful of Texas counties they may not — for now — purge registered voters or send them letters demanding proof of citizenship.

Eight counties named in one of three pending lawsuits over the review effort agreed last week that they will not cancel any voter registrations as lawyers from a host of civil rights groups tangle with the state in court. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery said from the bench Monday that the other counties named in a separate lawsuit should consider themselves restrained in the same way as litigation proceeds.

That doesn’t apply to the other 200-plus counties in the state, but “we expect all the counties are watching these proceedings,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups suing Texas and several counties.

[…]

Still to come from the judge’s chambers is a decision on civil rights groups’ broader requests to block the state from taking any further action related to the list as the lawsuits proceed. And the judge seemed at least somewhat amenable to that argument during a day of testimony that revealed fresh troubles with the state’s initial rollout of what it has come to characterize as “routine list maintenance activity.” Critics label it as an attempted widespread voter purge.

State officials conceded in federal court here Monday that a quarter of the nearly 100,000 voters flagged for citizenship review are naturalized citizens whose voter registration should never have been questioned in the first place.

And the list is only expected to get smaller, Keith Ingram, elections director for the Texas secretary of state’s office, acknowledged during cross-examination Monday.

The initial number shrank to about 74,000, Ingram explained, after “additional refinement” of data sourced from DPS, where Texans can register to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses.

About half of the 25,000 flagged erroneously were what Ingram called “code 64s” — a bureaucratic tag indicating that the voters registered at DPS while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. Since Texans have to present documentation, either as a citizen or as a legal permanent resident, to receive an identification card from the state, voters who registered at DPS would have demonstrated citizenship status.

The other half of the 25,000 “refined” off the flagged list had demonstrated citizenship to DPS but not registered to vote at the same time, Ingram said.

Before the original list was rolled out at the end of January, the state wasn’t aware it could utilize DPS data in order to narrow its target list, elections officials said Monday.

“I wish all of this could’ve been done back as the original effort,” Biery said. “Would you agree that all of this refinement would not have been done but for the sunshine light of the press and litigation?”

“The thing is that it’s the category of Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘unknown unknown’ — the things you don’t know you don’t know,” Ingram responded. “We didn’t know until the counties reported to us.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, sure, mistakes were made and all, but you know what made those mistakes so much worse? Handing the original, unvetted, known to be full of mistakes list to the rabid dogs at the AG’s office and then offer “these things happen” regrets when the Twitter crapstorms get unleashed. David Whitley is bad at his job – frankly, I’m not all that impressed with Keith Ingram, either – and everything he did made this worse. There were many ways in which this could have been handled in a more professional, less messy fashion. Maybe the next Secretary of State will be capable of doing that. The DMN has more.

Another reason David Whitley has to go

County elections officials feel like they can’t trust him or his office right now. That’s a big deal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As the Texas secretary of state’s office rolled out its botched effort to review the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, Betsy Schonhoff was local election officials’ main point of contact.

Seven years into her post as the state’s voter registration manager, she was largely responsible for the training provided to county officials ahead of the review. Schonhoff and her team fielded calls from election officials across the state as they began to sift through their lists. And she was the person who reached out to many of them when her agency discovered that thousands of voters’ names had been mistakenly flagged.

But a week and half into the convoluted review efforts, Schonhoff — voter registrars’ main contact within the agency — disappeared.

County election officials who called the secretary of state’s office asking for her were informed she was not available. A county worker who traveled to Austin last week to meet with Schonhoff was told she was out that day.

By then, Schonhoff had been gone from the secretary of state’s office for several days. She abruptly resigned on Feb. 6. But the county workers who relied on her experience overseeing the state’s voter rolls were kept in the dark.

A spokesman for the secretary of state denied that county officials were misled, saying those who called in were “directed to appropriate staff.” But during a call to Schonhoff’s office a week after she tendered her resignation and completed an exit interview, The Texas Tribune was told “Betsy’s not in.”

“It’s extremely odd, ” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections administrator, complaining at the time that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

The secretary of state’s office has since acknowledged that Schonhoff left. But the maelstrom surrounding her exit highlights the breakdown in communication and frustrations that have emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

I believe the term of art for this is that the SOS office is “in disarray”. Let us continue:

Sharing responsibilities for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, the secretary of state’s office and county election officials regularly review the list of 15.8 million people and counting who are registered to vote in Texas. List maintenance is largely a routine process and typically occurs without incident.

But the state’s latest stab at reviewing the rolls has felt anything but ordinary, according to county officials across the state.

It started with Whitley’s announcement of the new list maintenance process on Jan. 25. For the better part of last year, the secretary of state’s office had been quietly working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to match the state’s voter rolls with data kept on Texans who indicated they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

His office had offered trainings for local county officials ahead of sharing the data, and the secretary of state’s advised them earlier in the day that the data would soon be released. But they had no warning about the press release Whitley sent out announcing the review, nor were they aware that Whitley had provided data of the approximately 95,000 voters who were initially flagged to the state’s top prosecutors even before county officials would have access to it.

Oldham said he was tipped off about the announcement by a former local candidate who had seen a draft of the press release the attorney general’s office would send soon after Whitley’s announcement landed.

But others were caught flat-footed.

“Most of the time, it’s just very routine. [The state and counties] work together very well and then every once in a while something like this comes out,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “They characterized it as list maintenance, but it didn’t look or feel anything like ordinary list maintenance.”

And from there it got worse. The data was quickly shown to be disastrously inaccurate, with the SOS office at first quietly admitting as much to county officials. The lawsuits started coming, with county officials themselves being named in some of them for taking action upon receipt of the SOS advisory. And then the crown jewel, in which Keith Ingram threw county officials under the bus in a mealy-mouthed defense of his office’s incompetence. I’m sure this marriage of state and local elections officials can still be saved, but it’s time to get some counseling.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting for Betsy Schonhoff to tell her story in court, and for the reality to sink in on the Republican side that David Whitley’s days in office are numbered. And all of this began because of a zealous and fanatical pursuit of “illegal voters”, a problem that is very small and usually the result of misunderstanding than any bad intent, where all of the proposed “solutions” cause far more damage than they can ever hope to mitigate. All happening against the backdrop of the biggest election scandal I can recall, in which a Republican candidate for Congress and a shady campaign consultant used absentee ballots to actually steal an election, just last year, which now has to be done over. Just curious here, I don’t follow Ken Paxton on Twitter, but has he had anything to say about that? There are indeed lessons to be learned about election fraud. Our state leadership refuses to try.

Civil rights groups want Whitley to not be confirmed

No kidding.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

More than 30 civil rights and community groups are calling on Senate Democrats to block the confirmation of embattled interim Secretary of State David Whitley, who oversaw the botched rollout of an investigation into the citizenship of tens of thousands of Texas voters.

“Under no circumstances should Mr. Whitley be allowed to continue to serve as the Texas Secretary of State. The Senate Democratic caucus – and each of you individually – have the power to unite in defense of the voting rights of all Texans and stop his confirmation,” the groups wrote in a letter sent to Democratic senators on Thursday morning. “We call on you to affirmatively block the confirmation of David Whitley for Texas Secretary of State.”

[…]

“It has become exceedingly clear that Mr. Whitley is unfit to serve in that office,” the letter reads. “Mr. Whitley has targeted naturalized citizens for disenfranchisement and falsely accused them of committing voter fraud.”

The letter’s signatories, which include the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Texas NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Democratic Party, took Whitley to task for being unable to answer questions during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Nominations Committee about how his office handled the advisory’s rollout.

“Mr. Whitley demonstrated an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the process he initiated,” the letter reads.

Calling Whitley’s conduct “disqualifying,” the groups said he “knew or had reason to know that a substantial number of these 58,000 Texas residents had not voted unlawfully, and still he sent the entire list to the Attorney General for criminal investigation and potential prosecution.”

“Mr. Whitley’s actions demonstrate a level of incompetence that we cannot accept in a position tasked to protect and advance our most fundamental rights of civic participation,” the groups wrote.

I found a copy of the letter here. You will recognize a number of the signers as plaintiffs in the multiple lawsuits filed against Whitley and the SOS. Whitley’s confirmation remains in limbo as the Senate committee has yet to vote out his nomination following the hearing two weeks ago; it’s still pending after another no-action committee meeting on Thursday. It would take at least two Dems to vote for Whitley, assuming he gets unanimous Republican support, which maybe isn’t a sure thing given that he’s still pending in committee. And as of yesterday, every Dem Senator was on record opposing Whitley.

All 12 Democrats in the Texas Senate have publicly confirmed they are opposed to confirming embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, giving them more than enough votes to block his nomination if they’re all in the chamber when the vote comes up.

The tally of “no” verdicts from Senate Democrats hit a dozen on Friday, upping the ante on the minority party’s ability to block his path to confirmation if they all stick together. To be confirmed, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote in the 31-member chamber. But whether Whitley’s nomination will make it that far remains unclear.

[…]

If Whitley’s nomination is left pending for the rest of the session, he can serve only until the Legislature leaves Austin in late May. After that, Abbott could nominate a replacement who would immediately take over as secretary of state and serve at least until the next legislative session in 2021.

If the Senate votes and Whitley is rejected, he must leave office immediately.

Doesn’t look good for Whitley, does it? My guess at this point is that Whitley never comes up for a vote, and Abbott appoints someone else after the session. Basic competence for the task at hand, and not regularly insulting everyone’s intelligence, that’s all we’re asking here. This Twitter thread from the press conference has more.

SOS advisory lawsuit continues

From Day Two of testimony:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Despite a glaring error in the original data that questioned the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters, a state elections official defended the investigation in federal court Wednesday, saying some potential illegal activity has been uncovered and blaming several county officials for problems that have arisen.

Keith Ingram, head of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office, said 43 people on the list of suspect voters contacted his agency and asked to have their voter registration canceled because they were not U.S. citizens.

“I believe some have voted,” he told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery during a hearing into efforts by civil rights groups and an affected voter to halt the investigation as an error-riddled effort that improperly singles out naturalized citizens.

An additional 37 people asked to be removed from the state list of registered voters but gave no reason for the request, Ingram said.

[…]

Under questioning by opposing lawyer Chad Dunn, Ingram admitted that his agency’s original list of 95,000 suspect voters included about 20,000 people who had shown proof of citizenship to the Department of Public Safety.

Ingram blamed the mistake on the DPS, saying officials originally indicated that the information was not reliable because it was self-reported by the 20,000 people, only to later say that each registered voter had provided the DPS with proof of citizenship.

Asked by Dunn if his agency had publicly acknowledged that “the 95,000 figure is wrong and ought to be reduced,” Ingram said it had not.

Ingram also blamed officials in several counties for jumping the gun by immediately sending investigation letters demanding proof of citizenship to registered voters on the suspect list, saying they failed to heed warnings from his office that the names needed to be investigated first.

Ingram acknowledged that state officials were aware that the list included an unknown number of naturalized U.S. citizens because of shortcomings in citizenship data provided by the DPS.

See here for more from Day One of the trial, in which we first observed the state strategy of blaming the local county administrators for this fine mess we’re in. Sure seems to me that a lot of this could have been avoided if 1) the SOS had been more clear in its advisory to counties that there were likely a lot of false positives, 2) SOS wannabe David Whitley hadn’t stoked the fire by immediately referring the whole known-to-be-deeply-flawed list to the Attorney General, and 3) the SOS had at least backed off its initial and highly problematic “95,000 suspect voters” claim. The fact that we’re here in federal court tells you all you need to know about that.

In the meantime, there was a bit of drama in that courtroom.

A federal judge weighing whether to block Texas’ effort to investigate the citizenship of tens of thousands of people on its voter rolls said he wants to hear from a secretary of state employee who abruptly resigned from the office.

Betsy Schonhoff ran a nearly yearlong effort to match the state’s voter lists with databases at the Department of Public Safety for people who had obtained driver’s licenses when they weren’t citizens.

But she has not been served a subpoena, and there is evidence that she has been “evading service for five days,” said Chad Dunn, a lawyer for Julie Hilberg, a naturalized citizen whom the investigation flagged for review.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery made it clear he wanted to hear Schonhoff’s testimony in his San Antonio court, saying he knows U.S. marshals “who are very good at finding people.”

“She’s going to be here,” he said.

Late Wednesday, the Texas Attorney General’s office pushed back on the plaintiff’s characterization of efforts to reach Schonhoff.

“It’s our office’s understanding that, despite not having been served, the former employee of the Secretary of State’s office is willing to voluntarily appear at the next scheduled hearing and will do so,” Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the office said in a statement.

That next hearing will be today, and I for one would also like to hear what Ms. Schonhoff has to say.

Later in that first story, we learn that the lawsuit filed in Corpus Christi by MALDEF on behalf of seven naturalized citizens has been consolidated with this one. The third lawsuit, filed in Galveston by a coalition of civil rights groups who had initially demanded that the advisory be rescinded, will also have a hearing today following a phone conference on Wednesday to address a state request to fold this into the current suit as well. That’s pretty common – there were many lawsuits relating to the 2011/2013 redistricting that were eventually all joined into one action – but the plaintiffs may oppose the motion and there may be reasons to keep them separate. We shall see. In the meantime, MALDEF has already come out swinging.

Lawyers for two Texas naturalized citizens who landed on the state’s list of “potential noncitizen voters” are re-urging a federal court to block state and county attempts to remove people from voter rolls before their clients lose their right to vote next week.

In a Thursday filing, Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in San Antonio that the “situation is urgent and requires the Court’s immediate intervention.”

“If they do not comply with the purge letter’s demand and provide proof of U.S. citizenship they will lose their right to vote on March 2, 2019,” the filing says.

The two clients, identified as Jane Doe #1 and John Doe #1, received letters in late January from Smith County, where they are registered to vote, asking them to verify their citizenship within 30 days or be taken off the voter rolls. Jane Doe #1 is a college student who has an internship in Austin through the end of May and can’t return home to procure the documents, according to the filing.

John Doe #1 said “he does not want to be treated like a second class citizen” simply because he is naturalized and “will not go through Smith County’s additional steps and requirements” because he has already proven his citizenship, the filing said.

You can see that brief here. I’m hopeful that the plaintiffs can get a favorable ruling, though whether it would stand up on appeal is a more fraught question. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as always.

First day in court for SOS advisory lawsuits

First day for the first lawsuit, one of three filed against that bogus SOS advisory.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge in San Antonio will hear arguments Tuesday in one of three legal challenges to the state’s initiative to purge tens of thousands of Texans from voter rolls who officials claim are not U.S. citizens.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery will hear a request by a group headed by the League of United Latin American Citizens seeking a court order to block the plan. LULAC and others say many of the people targeted by the rollout were wrongly placed on the purge lists.

The state, in court records, defends the initiative as necessary. The hearing could last much of Tuesday, and possibly into Wednesday, but the judge is not expected to issue an immediate ruling.

[…]

LULAC’s suit said the initiative amounts to a discriminatory “witch hunt” targeting mostly Hispanic voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The Campaign Legal Center joined the suit, adding constitutional concerns. The groups also filed a request to turn it into a class-action lawsuit for others who might be wronged.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund later filed a separate suit in Corpus Christi, which contends that state officials singled out naturalized citizens because they were born outside the country. A coalition of other groups — MOVE Texas Civic Fund, Jolt Initiative, League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP of Texas — filed a third lawsuit in Galveston to prevent the purge, saying Texas officials are treating those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens. Both lawsuits are pending.

See here for more on the LULAC lawsuit, and here and here for the other lawsuits. The Trib filed a story later in the day with more details about what happened so far.

Facing three federal lawsuits challenging the legality of Texas’ efforts to review the citizenship of 98,000 registered voters, a top lawyer for the state opened up his defense in one of the cases by claiming the state had not made any mistakes or imposed unconstitutional burdens on certain voters in rolling out the review. Actually, he argued, it was certain county election officials who had acted “contrary to state law.”

In a federal courthouse Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Chris Hilton repeatedly questioned why two local election officials — Kerr County Tax Assessor Bob Reeves and Blanco County Tax Assessor Kristen Spies — immediately sent voters who were flagged by the state letters demanding that they prove their citizenship in order to remain on the voter rolls. Hilton said counties should have first reviewed their lists to determine whether they had reason to believe a voter was ineligible.

The two voter registrars told the court their staff was simply following the state’s instructions — laid out in an official election advisory — on how to determine if those individuals were in fact U.S. citizens and therefore eligible to vote. In her reading of the state’s advisory, in which state election officials repeatedly noted they had worked to provide counties with “actionable information,” Spies said she believed that meant “that we should work the list.” She was echoed by Reeves, who indicated the state’s decision to flag those voters gave them enough reason to move forward with those notices.

[…]

Hilton contended the secretary of state had merely told counties they had the choice to investigate the voters or take no action — not immediately send out notices.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Reeves, I think your staff has acted contrary to state law,” Hilton told Reeves, who oversees the county’s voter rolls and whose staff sent out 68 proof-of-citizenship letters the day the county received its list of voters from the state.

[…]

Chad Dunn, one of Hilberg’s attorneys, followed Hilton’s questioning by projecting a copy of the secretary of state’s advisory onto a large screen in the courtroom and reading from the part of the document that indicated that state officials “believe” the data they provided “can be acted on in nearly all circumstances.”

“Is a reasonable reading of that sentence that this list of voters is ready to be sent notices without any further steps?” Dunn asked.

“Based on this, yes,” Reeves responded.

Dunn then asked what effect a combination of that advisory and the statements made by top Republican officials about supposed voter fraud had on Reeves’ understanding of whether he needed to send those notices.

“To the best of my knowledge, that’s why my office sent that out,” Reeves said.

Classy move by the state, blaming the local officials for the SOS’s actions. The case continues today, and we probably won’t get an immediate ruling. And whatever happens here, those other lawsuits are out there as well.

Here’s one solution to the SOS problem

Works for me.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez

A San Antonio state rep wants to repeal the law that let Texas Secretary of State David Whitley refer a poorly vetted list of 95,000 people’s names to the attorney general for investigation for voter fraud.

Rep. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat, this week filed HB 1450, which will strip the Secretary of State’s office of authority to demand sensitive personal information from the Department of Public Safety.

[…]

“With as many as three lawsuits filed by an array of civil rights groups, it is clear that we need to fix this now,” Gutierrez said in a press statement. “The problem with relying on the DPS information for voter registration is its failure to account for those who became naturalized U.S. citizens after applying for a Texas driver’s license.”

In the lawsuits, civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and LULAC, called Whitley’s purge unconstitutional, arguing that it sets up discriminatory road blocks for voters.

Gutierrez and 13 colleagues voted against HB 2512, the original law that allowed Whitley’s office to access the driver’s license records in the name of sniffing out voter fraud.

“As an attorney I don’t take lightly accusing 100,000 Texans of breaking the law,” Gutierrez said. “We need to ensure that no illegal votes are cast, but we must do it with precision and integrity instead of targeting based on race. Texas is better than this.”

Here’s HB1450. I mean, I can’t imagine this passing, but it’s the right idea.

Whitley’s “apology”

He can do a lot better than this. He should do a lot better than this if he wants to get confirmed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Facing an uncertain path to confirmation after ordering a deeply flawed voter citizenship review that seemingly focused on naturalized citizens, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley is apologizing to state lawmakers for the way his office bungled its rollout of the review — but he is still holding firm behind the overall effort.

In a letter sent to state lawmakers late Wednesday, Whitley largely defended the review efforts as a legally sound exercise, and he did not admit that his office had erred when it mistakenly threw into question the eligibility of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens or when it sent counties lists of voters it knew very likely included naturalized citizens.

Instead, Whitley vaguely admitted there were some shortcomings to the data his office used to flag almost 100,000 registered voters for citizenship reviews and noted his office should have devoted more time to “additional communication” with local and state officials to “further eliminate anyone from our original list who is, in fact, eligible to vote.”

“After close consultation with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the counties, and members of the Texas Legislature, I have discovered that additional refining of the data my office provides to county voter registrars, both in substance and in timing, is necessary to ensure a more accurate and efficient list maintenance process,” Whitley wrote in the letter obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

In his letter to lawmakers, Whitley said his announcement “could have been communicated better” by including “more substance” from the advisory his office sent out to counties detailing the release of the data and “by emphasizing my goal to ensure that no qualified voters are removed from the rolls.”

“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,” Whitley wrote. “To the extent my actions missed that mark, I apologize.”

You can click over and see the letter if you want – I see no real value in that, given the clear lack of substance. Nothing about this should inspire any confidence in David Whitley’s ability to do the job. At the very least, we deserve an explanation of how this shoddy list was constructed, why there were no controls in place to properly vet it, why it was referred to the AG’s office despite these obvious shortcomings, and what is being done to prevent anything like this from happening again. Oh, and an apology to the people who have been wrongly accused. Come back after that and then we can talk.

In the meantime:

The confusion and chaos caused by Texas’ bombastic voter fraud allegations has manifested in almost every element of the fallout.

The latest example is a voter purge notice sent out by one Texas county that lacked basic contact information or even an official letterhead.

The notice left one citizen mistakenly flagged by the stake feeling “very worried” and a “sense of fear,” according to court documents filed Monday.

[…]

In Wood County, those notices went out with the space left blank where the phone number of the local elections office should have been. The notices also lacked the response form the recipients were asked to use to reply, and there was no letterhead on the notices.

A woman in the court docs known as “Jane Doe #2” — who received the notice despite being naturalized in March 2018 and voting legally in that year — recounted in a declaration her frustration and her “sense of fear,” given that she could not tell if the letter was fake or real.

“I questioned whether I had done something wrong, or if somebody was trying to prank me.” Jane Doe #2 wrote in the declaration. “I did not know where to go or who to call to receive answers to my questions.”

She first tried to call the county clerk’s office, where the staff member who answered her call said the letter might be fake and that the person whose name was on the notice didn’t work for the county clerk, according to Jane Doe #2’s statement. She finally got in touch with the county elections administrator, Lisa Wise, who explained that the notices had been sent out without the contact information by mistake. Jane Doe #2 eventually traveled to meet Wise in person and showed Wise a copy of her naturalization certificate.

This was part of a filing by MALDEF in their lawsuit against the SOS. What would David Whitley say to Jane Doe? What he has said so far is completely inadequate.

Vote centers advance

The other big story from Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

See here for the background. There have been several public meetings to get feedback about this proposal. More planning will need to be done to determine the number and location of voting centers. I presume that will vary by turnout level, as has been the case with all-precinct locations, so accurately projecting turnout will be key. I have no idea how long this process takes, but we’ll be seeing these things sooner rather than later, at least for some elections.

Paxton double-talks on that SOS advisory

Ken Paxton really can’t be trusted. Not exactly earth-shattering, I know, but always good to remember.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton assured lawmakers on Friday that his office hadn’t launched criminal investigations into nearly 100,000 voters flagged by the secretary of state’s office for citizenship review.

But email correspondence obtained by The Texas Tribune between an assistant county attorney and a Paxton deputy who cites “pending criminal investigations related to these issues” appears to contradict the attorney general’s claim.

The two opposing statements were put into writing within a week. Paxton made his assurance in a letter received by the Senate Nominations Committee, which had grilled Secretary of State David Whitley a day earlier over his decision to hand over to the attorney general’s office the list of voters whose citizenship he was questioning. Whitley’s confirmation is in doubt, in part because of questions from Democrats about whether he knew there were naturalized citizens on the list but referred the names to the state’s top prosecutor anyway.

Paxton wrote that it would “not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of [secretary of state] matters” before local voter registrars had reviewed the lists they received from the state.

“We plan to begin our investigations only once some counties have completed their list maintenance,” Paxton said.

But the Friday before, Assistant Attorney General Lauren Downey wrote the opposite in an email to Guadalupe County’s assistant county attorney: “The Office of the Attorney General has pending criminal investigations related to these issues.”

See here for the background. Never trust a word Ken Paxton says. I don’t have anything to add to this, so let me turn the microphone over to Julieta Garibay:

Finally, 26 years after I had migrated to the United States and made Austin my home. After all the trials and tribulations as an undocumented immigrant. After being a survivor of domestic violence and getting my green card because of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Justice had prevailed — I would be a U.S. citizen.

In April 2018, my family and friends joined me as I took my citizenship oath. I couldn’t help but cry in joy and excitement as I waved my American flag. A month later, I proudly cast my first vote in the United States — one of the new rights I was most excited about. At the polls, I thought of all the people in the immigrant community who were counting on my vote to ensure we are treated with dignity and respect.

But a couple weeks ago, when I saw Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaim “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” my heart sank. It was clear to me that the Secretary of State’s office hadn’t thoroughly investigated the data it had released on 95,000 potential non-citizen voters. Frightened, I emailed the Travis County Voter Registrar to ask if I was on the list. A couple of days later, I received a call that confirmed my fear — my right to vote was being questioned.

She goes on to call for Secretary of State David Whitley to resign. Failing that, not confirming him would be adequate. I’m with her on this.

Paxton manages to restrain himself from prosecuting anyone on the SOS list – yet

Mighty decent of you there, Kenny boy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told lawmakers Friday that his office has yet to take action on a deeply flawed list of nearly 100,000 Texas voters flagged last month for citizenship review.

Paxton wrote a letter to the Senate Nominations Committee the day after a hearing in which David Whitley, the governor’s nominee to be the state’s top election official, conceded that he was aware of potential problems with the list before he referred it to the state’s top prosecutors.

[…]

Paxton assured senators in the Friday letter that his agency would undertake such probes “only once some counties have completed their list maintenance.”

“To us, justice means charging and prosecuting only if the facts show the person committed the offense and had the required criminal state of mind,” Paxton wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman and obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Charging a defendant without that evidence is injustice.”

But Paxton’s letter also made clear that the delay in initiating prosecutions is largely due to a lack of resources.

“Our undersized Election Fraud Unit was experiencing a backlog of over 80 complex cases even before the SOS notification,” Paxton wrote. “Simply put, even utilizing every resource we have, it would not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of SOS matters before the voter registrars should be able to complete their list maintenance activity.”

Paxton’s agency has asked the Legislature for $2 million and 10 full-time staff members to investigate and prosecute election fraud cases, saying it has too many investigations and too few resources already.

See here for more on Whitley’s super fun day of admitting to the committee that he doesn’t know his rear end from his elbow. I’m sure this all must be grinding Paxton’s gears, poor baby. It has to be just a wee bit harder to justify all that money for his political vendettas when the numbers are so obviously wrong even he can’t act on them. As the story notes, he may never get any actual names from county election administrators, at least not any time soon. The lesson here is that it’s so much better to be right slowly than to be wrong quickly. And like many important lessons in life, it needed to be learned the hard way.

The Whitley hearing

Not a great day at the office for our Secretary of State and his advisory-ing ways.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Almost two weeks after calling into question the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, Texas’ new chief elections officer, David Whitley, defended his office’s decision to hand over those voters’ names to law enforcement around the same time his office was also acknowledging to local election officials that the list of names could contain mistakes.

At a Senate hearing to consider his confirmation as secretary of state, Whitley vacillated between telling lawmakers he referred the list of voters to the attorney general’s office because his office had no power to investigate them for illegal voting and describing the citizenship review efforts as an ongoing process based on a list that still needed to be reviewed by local officials. But he made clear is that his office knew from the start that the data could be faulty.

He stated that in response to a question from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, who asked whether the secretary of state’s office had “cautioned the counties that there may be mistakes on the data.”

“Yes,” Whitley responded.

But when he was pressed by Democrats over his decision to send the list to the statewide office that handles criminal voter fraud prosecutions before the list was fully vetted, Whitley responded he wanted to get the data “in the hands of someone who could do something with it,” given that the secretary of state’s office had no power to investigate. That prompted follow-up questions about whether he should have waited until the list was scrubbed by local election officials, and Whitley doubled down with his defense, despite describing the data as “preliminary.”

“I can tell you senator that 100 percent my reason for transmitting this data to the attorney general’s office was to ensure that these lists were as accurate as possible,” Whitley said to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Sitting before senators in a packed committee room, Whitley faced blistering questions from Democrats for the better part of two hours. After brief opening remarks in which he touted his long career as a public servant, he somberly defended the controversial citizenship review efforts he ordered. But at times he struggled to answer technical questions about the flawed data at the heart of it.

At one point, Watson asked Whitley whether he’d consider asking the attorney general to hold off on investigating voters until the list was cleaned up. Whitley responded it was a “reasonable request” but said he was unsure “that it’s appropriate coming from my office.”

“You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state,” Watson said.

See here for the background. It goes from there, and it never gets any better for Whitley, who mostly comes across as unprepared. As discussed, he will need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be confirmed, and right now he doesn’t look to be on track to win over any Democrats, from whom he will need at least one vote to clear the bar. As I understand it, if he does not get confirmed, he will serve till the end of the legislative session, then Abbott will have to name someone else. The last time I can recall such an appointment getting scuttled was in 2011, when we had the fortunately-doomed nomination of David Bradley to the Forensic Sciences Commission. Before that was the 2009 nomination of Don McLeroy as Chair of the SBOE. I don’t care who you are in Texas politics, those are not names you want to be associated with.

Anyway. It’s still early to say what will happen for sure, but David Whitley didn’t win anyone over yesterday. See Progress Texas’ Twitter feed for in-the-moment coverage, and the Chron editorial board, which calls for Whitley to be rejected, has more.

SOS Whitley still has to be confirmed by the Senate

His committee hearing is today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Secretary of State David Whitley, who sent a flawed data analysis to every elections official in Texas warning that nearly 100,000 non-U.S. citizens may have illegally registered to vote, is due Thursday to meet with state senators who will decide whether he should keep his job.

Democratic lawmakers say they want answers from Whitley, appointed in December by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose list of possible illegal voters has spurred a flurry of civil rights lawsuits, denunciations from county elections officials — and applause from the Texas GOP as well as President Donald Trump condemning voter fraud.

Whitley will “need to be able to answer that there is not an effort to infringe people’s right to vote,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the nominations committee that will hear testimony on Thursday. “This is, in my view, a very important step in the process and a unique opportunity to start getting on the record answers about why we’re in this situation.”

There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the committee.

[…]

The hearing Thursday will be the first with Whitley speaking publicly about the voter rolls. Whitely declined an invitation to discuss the matter with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, although Whitley’s staff says the secretary has met privately with some legislators.

The issue is at best a “scandal of incompetence and at worse, it is a scandal of maliciousness,” said Anchia, who chairs the caucus. “The fact that a group of duly elected legislators is getting the stiff arm from the state is troubling.”

His confirmation is not assured.

Though Republicans hold 19 seats in the 31-seat upper chamber and can largely consider legislation without the say of any Democrat, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote among the senators present when the full Senate votes on his nomination. That means even with the support of all of the Republicans, he’ll need at least some Democratic support unless several senators are gone the day of the vote.

Whether he’ll clear that hurdle remains a question. Democrats on the Nominations Committee say they’re heading into Thursday’s hearing with a set of what are likely to be blistering questions about whether Whitley acted to suppress the votes of naturalized citizens.

“There is very little about this that doesn’t concern me — everything from intent to what a reasonable person would do under these circumstances to flaws in the system,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who serves as the vice chair of the committee.

Watson described Thursday’s hearing as a “very important step” in the confirmation process. It will allow senators to question Whitley about a review of the voter rolls “that has caused great concern — justifiable concern — about whether it’s an effort to infringe on people’s right to vote,” Watson said.

Whitley knows the appointments process well. Though he most recently served as Abbott’s deputy chief of staff, he previously oversaw appointments for the governor, remaining in that role during the confirmation of his predecessor, Rolando Pablos. Like Abbott’s first secretary of state, Carlos Cascos, Pablos was confirmed on a unanimous vote by the Senate.

But Abbott’s prior appointees haven’t had to explain themselves in the way Whitley might.

You can say that again. In the end, his nomination will surely advance out of committee for a vote by the full Senate, likely on a 4-3 vote. After that, who knows. He will finally get asked some questions about how this debacle came to be. Given all the lawsuits, getting him on the record, no matter how much he tries to dissemble and evade, will be both helpful and clarifying. Plus, you know, that ought to be part of the job description. The Statesman has more.

The state of the state 2019

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that gets noticed.

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address Tuesday, stayed on message about schools and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections. In doing so, he carefully avoided controversial social issues like the ones that headlined last session’s speech.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said, and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

[…]

Unlike in his first two State of the State addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. He tagged that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion. And there was hardly any other mention of health care, an expense that takes up nearly as large a share of the state’s budget as does education.

House and Senate Democrats called it “disappointing” that the governor didn’t propose expanding access to pre-K or lowering the costs of teachers’ health care.

And state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who serves as the caucus’ second vice-chair, said that Abbott, for all his bragging on the state of Texas during his speech, failed to mention the state’s high uninsured rate for health care.

“Texas needs to expand Medicaid,” Rose said during the conference, “and we need to expand it today.”

Still, Democrats were optimistic about some of the notable absences. Two years ago, Abbott’s address was headlined by his call for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Democrats would staunchly oppose. This year, the governor mostly stayed away from hot-button social issues.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democrat who heads his party’s caucus in the House, said after the speech. “It seems as though election results have consequences.”

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and civil rights groups have sued the state three times.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the property tax proposals Abbott has made, and one reason why there are fewer red meat items on his agenda is that a lot of them – voter ID, “sanctuary cities”, campus carry – have already been passed. I will agree that this was much more temperate than the address from two years ago – there’s no way Abbott would admit this, but I think Rep. Turner is right in his assessment – and there are issues on Abbott’s list that will get broad bipartisan support. Let’s be glad for the small victories, and work to make them bigger. Ross Ramsey, Texas Monthly, and the Observer have more.

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

Second lawsuit filed over bogus SOS advisory

Keep ’em coming.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of Latino voters is suing top state officials who they allege unlawfully conspired to violate their constitutional rights by singling them out for investigation and removal from the voter rolls because they are foreign-born.

Filed in a Corpus Christi-based federal court on Friday night, the suit alleges that the decision by state officials to advise counties to review the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters it flagged using flawed data runs contrary to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act because it imposes additional requirements to register to vote on naturalized citizens.

Joined in the suit by several organizations that advocate for Latinos in Texas, the seven voters suing the state all obtained their driver’s license before they became naturalized citizens and subsequently registered to vote.

Their lawsuit — which names Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas secretary of state David Whitley, attorney general Ken Paxton and one local official as defendants — asks the court to halt the state’s review and block officials from taking any action against them based on their national origin. It also asks Whitley to refrain from targeting new citizens for voter purges and to withdraw his current list “unless and until it acquires information that the voters are currently ineligible to vote.”

[…]

One of the plaintiffs — Julieta Garibay — has confirmed with Travis County election officials that she is on the list they received from the state. Five others believe they were included on the state’s list. Another plaintiff — Elena Keane — received a notice from Galveston County stating “there is reason to believe you may not be a United States citizen” and asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days to remain on the voter rolls.

Two days later, Keane received a second letter stating she had received the first letter in error.

Here’s the latest on that first lawsuit. This one was filed by MALDEF on behalf of the voters. The ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project have threatened to sue if the SOS doesn’t rescind the advisory, so we may get a third filing before all is said and done. Keep at it and don’t let up, I say. The Chron has more.

SOS advisory lawsuit update

Add another plaintiff, litigate till done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A naturalized citizen — who immigrated to Texas from the United Kingdom and is a registered voter — is joining a Latino civil rights group in suing top Texas officials after her voter registration was flagged by the state for a citizenship check.

Signing onto a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, Atascosa County resident Julie Hilberg on Friday alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s move to question the legality of tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas was an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on the right to vote.

Hilberg — who also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens in its claims that Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton have violated a provision of the federal Voting Rights that prohibits the intimidation of voters — added her name to the suit, but she is also seeking to represent all of the legitimately registered voters who appear on the state’s list as a plaintiff class.

“The burden imposed by Defendant Whitley’s new voter purge program — both the current list of 95,000 registrants flagged for potential removal and the plan to continue this practice on a monthly basis — imposes a severe and plainly discriminatory burden on naturalized citizens who wish to exercise their right to vote,” the complaint reads.

[…]

After learning about the citizenship checks in the news, Hilberg on Thursday went to the local elections office with her naturalization certificate in hand to figure out if she was among those voters.

Hilberg suspected she would be on the list because she had most recently renewed her driver’s license in 2014 — the year before she took her oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in San Antonio. She had registered to vote in Atascosa County in June 2015, and then voted in several elections from 2016 to 2018.

When Atascosa County’s election administrator, Janice Ruple, confirmed Hilberg was on the list they had received from the state, Hilberg assumed any questions about her citizenship status would be resolved in that moment because Ruple knows Hilberg — and her citizenship status — personally, according to the complaint.

Instead, “Ms. Ruple was unable or unwilling to give Ms. Hilberg any information or assurances about whether her registration would be in jeopardy because her name was on Defendant Whitley’s list,” the lawsuit reads.

See here for the background. I don’t know what difference it makes from a legal standpoint to include a plaintiff who was directly affected, but I presume it can’t hurt. Ms. Hilberg was done wrong, and she deserves redress for it.

SOS walks its advisory back even more

Just rescind the whole damn list and let’s pretend this never happened.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A week after it flagged tens of thousands of voters for citizenship checks, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now advising counties on how to check their lists for naturalized citizens — an indirect acknowledgment that legitimate voters could have been on the list from the beginning.

Those voters are in addition to the more than 20,000 others who should have been removed from the list earlier this week after state officials found they had been mistakenly included.

In a mass email sent to local election officials on Friday, the secretary of state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, offered up additional guidance to counties looking to clear voters from their lists without sending notices demanding proof of citizenship. Among the advice he offered to those election officials “after speaking to a number of counties” was to review registration application files collected at ceremonies in which immigrants become citizens.

“Some county voter registrars or [volunteer deputy registrars] participate in naturalization ceremonies and maintain lists of naturalized citizens or can identify which applications were completed at a naturalization ceremony,” Ingram wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“Like many other election and voter registration activities, we are working together on this,” Ingram wrote in the email. “We thank you for your feedback and continue to welcome any further feedback so that we can work together to ensure an effective and efficient process of maintaining an accurate list of registered voters going forward.”

The additional guidance to counties comes as civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers continue to call on the state to rescind its original advisory to local election officials regarding the voters flagged for citizenship checks, pointing to the errors that have already been discovered in the state’s data.

“We told the SOS what was going to happen, and this week we all saw that what we cautioned against has become true,” Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said on a press call on Friday. “The list is entirely flawed.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Seems like the SOS is doing everything it can to disavow its original advisory without publicly admitting their initial advisory was trash. They also haven’t said whether they’ve given a less-bogus list of names to the AG’s office. They couldn’t have been more incompetent and buffoonish if they’d tried.

And it’s quite clear, they tried.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia had been alarmed by the actions of the Texas secretary of state’s office for days by the time the agency’s chief, David Whitley, walked into the Dallas Democrat’s Capitol office on Monday.

The Friday before, Whitley’s staff had issued a press release calling into question the citizenship of 95,000 registered voters in Texas. In the days since, advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers were raising serious questions about whether the majority of people on that list would soon be proven to be eligible voters.

But before those doubts emerged, Whitley, the top election officer in the state, had handed over information about those registered voters to the Texas attorney general, which has the jurisdiction to prosecute them for felony crimes.

So as he sat at the end of his green, glass-topped conference table, Anchia — the chair of the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus — wanted to know: Did Whitley know for sure that any of the names on his list had committed crimes by voting as noncitizens?

“No,” Whitley answered, according to Anchia.

“And I said, ‘Well, isn’t it the protocol that you investigate and, if you find facts, you turn it over to the AG?”

“I do not have an answer for that,” Whitley responded, according to Anchia’s recollection of the Monday meeting.

[…]

The citizenship check effort went public this week, but the seeds for it were planted in 2013. That year, Texas lawmakers quietly passed a law granting the secretary of state’s office access to personal information maintained by the Department of Public Safety.

During legislative hearings at the time, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state’s office, told lawmakers that the information would help his office verify the voter rolls. The state had had a recent misstep when it tried remove dead people from the rolls and ended up sending “potential deceased” notices to Texans who were still alive.

One of the DPS records that the 2013 law granted the secretary of state’s office access to was a list of people who had turned in documentation indicating they weren’t citizens — such as a green card or a work visa — when they obtained a driver’s license or an ID in Texas.

But it appears that the secretary of state’s office held off for years before comparing that list with its list of registered voters. Former Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Republican claims of rampant voter fraud, said he had no memory of even considering using the DPS data when he served from 2015 to 2017.

“I don’t recall it ever coming to my desk,” Cascos said. “I don’t even recall having any informal discussions of that.”

And there was reason to be careful with the “lawful presence list.” Driver’s licenses don’t have to be renewed for several years. In between renewals, Texans aren’t required to notify DPS about a change in citizenship status. That means many of the people on the list could have become citizens and registered to vote without DPS knowing.

Other states learned the hard way that basing similar checks on driver’s license data was risky.

In Florida, officials in 2012 first drew up a list of about 180,000 possible noncitizens. It was later culled to about 2,600 names, but even then that data was found to include errors. Ultimately, only about 85 voters were nixed from the rolls.

Around the same time, officials in Colorado started with a list of 11,805 individuals on the voter rolls who they said were noncitizens when they got their driver’s licenses. In the end, state officials said they had found about 141 noncitizens on the rolls — 35 of whom had a voting history — but those still needed to be verified by local election officials.

But it was under the helm of former Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who took over in 2017, that the state began processing the DPS list. That happened even though at least some people in the office knew the risk. Officials in the secretary of state’s office early last year acknowledged to reporters for The Texas Tribune that similar checks in other states using driver’s license data had run into issues with naturalized citizens. Pablos didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Still, on Dec. 5, Betsy Schonhoff, voter registration manager for the secretary of state’s office, told local officials that her office had been working with DPS “this past year” to “evaluate information regarding individuals identified by DPS to not be citizens.” In a mass email sent to Texas counties — and obtained by the Tribune — Schonhoff informed them that the secretary of state’s office would be obtaining additional information from DPS in monthly files and sending out lists of matches starting in mid-January.

The next day, Pablos announced he would resign after two years in office. In his place, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide who at the time served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

Makes you wonder if he saw this coming and hopped off the train while he still could. Texas is in the process of learning the same lesson that Florida and Colorado did. I just have no faith that it will stick, at least as long as the current crew is in charge.

Eh, what’s a few thousand mis-identified non-citizens among friends?

No biggie.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott downplayed concerns Thursday about the voter citizenship review initiated last week by his secretary of state, even though it has since become clear that the state’s list of flagged voters swept up thousands of U.S. citizens who should not have been scrutinized.

“This is what you would categorize as a process, a work [in progress],” Abbott said. “They’ll get it right, but I do want to be emphatic: It is essential that the secretary of state, [the Department of Public Safety], counties, anybody with any authority over this whatsoever work collaboratively and swiftly together to make sure our voter rolls are accurate, to ensure integrity in the election process.”

Last Friday, Abbott’s newly named secretary of state, David Whitley, flagged a list of about 95,000 registered voters whom his office said had provided DPS with some form of documentation that showed they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or IDs.

[…]

Reacting to Whitley’s announcement Friday, Abbott thanked him for “uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration,” promising legislation to address it.

But when he was asked about the fiasco Thursday at an unrelated news conference, the governor recast the effort.

“They were clear that it was a weak match, and they were reaching out to counties saying, ‘Listen, this isn’t a hard-and-fast list,” Abbott said. “This is a list that we need to work on together to make sure that those who do not have the legal authority to vote are not going to be able to vote.”

Abbott’s remarks come two days after it became clear secretary of state’s office had mistakenly called into question the citizenship status of thousands of voters who were, in fact, citizens.

See here and here for the background. That is some relentless commitment to quality right there. Abbott sets a sterling example from the top.

In Bastrop County, Elections Administrator Bridgette Escobedo said she had worked her way through about one-third of a list of 145 names, finding 15 that did not belong there. She said she also found several names of people who had become naturalized citizens.

Also Wednesday, county officials said they have had little luck connecting with the secretary of state’s office to clarify the situation.

Escobedo said she asked Whitley’s office to provide a “clean” list of suspected noncitizen voters but had heard no response by early Thursday evening.

“We’re wasting a lot of resources and energy on nonissues,” she said. “Don’t make me go through all 145 people on my list if you know some shouldn’t be on there.”

In Williamson County, Davis said the secretary of state’s office had not responded to his request for written instructions on how to cull the list of suspected noncitizens — information Whitley’s office provided by telephone Tuesday.

Travis County also received no response to its request that Whitley revise his initial advisory, county spokeswoman Tiffany Seward said Wednesday.

[…]

While counties have begun removing names from their lists, the secretary of state’s website continues to promote — without revision or correction — its Friday notice claiming that 95,000 people were identified as registered voters who are possible noncitizens, a violation of state law, and that 58,000 of those people had voted in one or more elections, a potential felony.

Whitley’s office has not responded to questions posed Tuesday and Wednesday asking if there are plans to update the numbers or publicly acknowledge that the original list included U.S. citizens who were mistakenly included.

We joke, because we must in order to cope, but this is all clearly setting the stage to purge voter rolls as much as possible. Republicans saw what happened in 2018. They will do what they can to stop the same thing from happening in 2020. Texas Monthly, who quotes former SOS Carlos Cascos saying the whole list should be rescinded, and the Chron, have more.

As the SOS advisory numbers get revised down

This really can’t be emphasized enough.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

I included that bit at the tail end of yesterday’s post, but it needed to be its own entry. More than sixty percent of the names the SOS gave Harris County had to be removed because the SOS had failed to do any kind of due diligence. I’ve checked around and we don’t have solid numbers for this kind of correction elsewhere in the state (not that I can find, anyway), so perhaps Harris County was an outlier. I see no reason to give the SOS any benefit of that doubt. They need to recall the entire list, do their actual freaking job to vet it properly, and then get back to the counties with whatever is left. And put out a big statement walking back everything they said on Friday, which has been trumpeted far and wide by Republicans who desperately want to believe they need to take drastic measures to stop hordes of non-citizens from voting. This was both 100% grade A bullshit and some extremely convenient cover for whatever anti-voting bills that get pushed this session. Like I said yesterday, we can’t sue them hard enough.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

Civil rights groups push back on bogus SOS letter

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lawyers with 13 organizations — including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — are demanding that the state rescind an advisory sent to local election officials regarding the individuals whose citizenship status the state says the counties should consider checking. In a letter sent Monday, the groups requested a response by Jan. 30, claiming that the state’s data was flawed and demanding more information about the methodology it used.

Some of the groups are considering litigation against the state, said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The letter comes three days after the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it would send local election officials a list of 95,000 registered voters who had provided the Texas Department of Safety some form of documentation, such as a green card or a work visa, that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or an ID cards.

“Using such a data set to review the current citizenship status of anyone is inherently flawed because it fails to account for individuals who became naturalized citizens and registered to vote at any point after having obtained their driver license or personal identification card,” the lawyers wrote.

In their letter, the groups point to efforts in Florida that used similar methodology to create a list of approximately 180,000 registered voters that officials claimed were noncitizens based on records used when they obtained driver’s licenses. That fight ended up in federal court after more than 2,600 were mistakenly removed from the rolls after being classified as noncitizens. About 85 voters “ultimately proved actionable,” the lawyers wrote.

See here for the background. The letter to the SOS is here, and the letter they sent to all 254 county election administrators is here. The latter is both a public information request for “all records relating to the Advisory, including but not limited to the list of all individuals identified by the Secretary of State or Department of Public Safety as potential non-citizens, the Voter Unique Identifier for each of those individuals, and all communications and correspondence with the Secretary of State concerning the Advisory”, and a plea to not take any action “unless and until the Secretary of State has provided greater transparency on its procedures and ensured there are adequate safeguards for not identifying lawfully registered naturalized citizens.” The letter to the SOS lays out their demands for more information, and drops a little math on them:

Given that Texas Driver Licenses and ID Cards do not expire for a full six years after they are issued, the odds are quite high that this list of purported non-citizens includes tens of thousands of people who are now US citizens entitled to vote. Indeed, each year, between 52,000-63,000 Texans become naturalized citizens (roughly the same number of potential non-citizens you claim have voted in Texas elections over a 22-year period).1 Given that newly naturalized citizens have voter registration rates around 50%,2 it is reasonable to conclude that at least 25,000 newly naturalized Texans are lawfully registering to vote each year. Even if one assumes that not all naturalized citizens previously obtained driver licenses, and not all registered naturalized citizens registered immediately, it is easy to see how this would result in your office obtaining over 90,000 incorrectly identified matches.

Read them both. Given that Ken Paxton was sending out email earlier the same day screaming about thousands of illegal voters, I think the odds are very high this will wind up in court.

It’s “Let’s lie about vote fraud” season again

The Trib wrote about this in the best possible way, but the shrieking ghouls are out there in force doing what they can to whip up fear.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas secretary of state’s office announced Friday it would send local election officials a list of 95,000 registered voters who the state says counties should consider checking to see whether they are U.S. citizens and, therefore, legally eligible to vote.

In an advisory released Friday afternoon, the office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not a citizen when they were obtaining a driver’s license or an ID card. Among the individuals flagged, about 58,000 individuals cast a ballot in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018, the secretary of state’s office said.

It’s unclear exactly how many of those individuals are not actually U.S. citizens and whether that number will be available in the future. In its notice to counties, the secretary of state’s office said the names should be considered “WEAK” matches, using all capital letters for emphasis.

That means counties may now choose to investigate the eligibility of the individuals who were flagged, which would require them to send a notice asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days, or take no action. By law, the counties aren’t allowed to automatically revoke a voter’s registration without sending out such a notice.

It’s possible that individuals flagged by the state — who provided DPS with documentation that indicated they were authorized to be in the country — could have become naturalized citizens since they obtained their driver’s license or ID card. A spokesman for the secretary of state said officials are “very confident” that the data received from DPS is “current.”

In announcing the review of the rolls, Secretary of State David Whitley — who was appointed to the post last month after serving as deputy chief of staff to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — immediately handed the data over to the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who said his office will “spare no effort in assisting with these troubling cases.”

But without additional verification, you can’t say these individuals all engaged in illegal voting, said Chris Davis, the head of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

“People get naturalized,” Davis said. “It’s entirely too early to say that.”

You should also read the Trib’s Twitter thread about this story, which sums it all up nicely.

First things first: This came out on Friday afternoon, which is usually the dumping ground for news that people want to bury. Do you think that if the Texas Secretary of State, a man appointed by Greg Abbott, had credible evidence of thousands of people voting illegally, this is how and when he would have announced it? Yeah, me neither.

Second, note the sentence that contains “about 58,000 individuals cast a ballot in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018”. That’s 23 years’ worth of elections. This doesn’t say 58,000 people last year – which, even if it did, would be about 0.7% of all votes cast. The average number per year is about 2,500, and that’s before we consider the possibility of false postives.

Why might there be false positives? See that line about “WEAK” matches. There’s likely to be a bunch of false positives based on the match criteria, which is mostly going to be name and county. Lots of people have the same name. Right here in Houston is another woman with the same name as my wife. We know all about her because we’ve gotten phone calls for years from creditors trying to track her down. That’s why the call from the SOS is for counties to look into the possibility that there may be non-citizens among the names, not for them to be removed immediately.

And finally, there’s the fact that despite DPS’ claims about this data being current, there’s no process to change one’s citizenship status with DPS if and when one gets naturalized at a later date. Some people have already spoken up on Twitter to say they voted after becoming citizens and thus might be on that DPS list.

Bottom line, this is a big old nothingburger. The Republicans are screaming about it – I’ve gotten multiple press releases over the weekend from the Republican Party of Texas about this – but they know full well there’s diddly squat to this. I’ll put it to you this way: Six months or a year from now, how many prosecutions for illegal voting as a result of this advisory do you think Ken Paxton will announce? The over/under on that is maybe ten, and I’m being generous. Mother Jones has more.

HD108 recount begins

I believe this is the last un-conceded race.

Joanna Cattanach

The recount for an extremely tight Dallas County race between incumbent Republican Morgan Meyer and Democratic challenger Joanna Cattanach will begin Tuesday.

“We appreciate all of the notes of support and emails, the volunteers who’ve stepped up to serve as poll watchers, and thank you to those who’ve donated to help our effort to ensure every vote counts and every vote matters in House District 108,” Cattanach, who requested the recount, said in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

[…]

On Tuesday at 9 a.m., county officials will begin a by-hand recount which could take several days. Election Day ballots will be counted first and mail ballots will be counted after that. These two ballots will be counted first because they are a mix of electronic and by-hand ballots.

Early voting in-person ballots, which were done electronically, will be counted last. Those electronic records will be counted by hand and are expected to total more than 67,000 pages to print, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

But if the victory gap doesn’t shrink after the Election Day and mail ballots are counted, Cattanach could choose to end the recount then, since the electronic ballots are not expected to change. Cattanach, who has already put down a deposit of $7,000, would have to pay more money if she decided to go forward with the full recount.

If the election results changed, however, Cattanach would be refunded her deposit and the county would pay for the recount.

See here, here, and here for the background. Cattanach trails by 440 votes out of over 78K cast. You know I never expect recounts to change anything, but it’s a candidate’s right in a close election, and this is a close election. There were some others that were even closer, and I’m a bit surprised this is the only recount on the table, but here we are. I’ll keep my eye on it.

From the “I may have spoken too soon” department

First, Will Hurd was declared the winner in CD23. But there were still a few precincts out, some in deep red Medina County and others in El Paso County. Hurd started the evening with a 6K early vote lead, but Jones cut into it through the night. Then we had this:


CD23

Will Hurd - Incumbent   REP    100,627  48.88%
Gina Ortiz Jones        DEM    100,909  49.02%
Ruben Corvalan          LIB      4,311   2.09%

And it looked like all the precincts had been counted, and Gina Ortiz Jones had pulled it out in the end. But then it turned out there may have been a mistake in the Medina numbers, and the SOS page showed one precinct still out. When the dust cleared, we got this:


CD23

Will Hurd - Incumbent   REP    102,903  49.11%
Gina Ortiz Jones        DEM    102,214  48.78%
Ruben Corvalan          LIB      4,402   2.10%

Harold has the screenshots. One way or the other, I smell a recount.

Which leads to this:


HD132

Mike Schofield (REP)    32,629  49.14%
Gina Calanni   (DEM)    32,678  49.21%
Daniel Arevalo (LIB)     1,097   1.65%

There were only a tiny number of uncounted precincts left in Harris County when I posted that omnibus report, but apparently some of them were in HD132, and they gave Gina Calanni enough support to overcome the 270-vote advantage Mike Schofield had owned. Again, for sure there will be a recount, but if this results now stands, Democrats will have 67 of 150 seats in the State House, for a gain of twelve (!) in that chamber. I am amazed. And I won’t be surprised if I find out that something else has happened in one of these races, or any other for that matter.

Our poor old voting machines

They really do need to be retired.

A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed.

State election officials chalked it up to user error.

Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug.

The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old.

“It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic.

Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines.

[…]

While Sockwell said that the eSlate machines “have not been performing any differently” than they have in previous elections, he said it is time for municipalities to upgrade to Hart’s newer voter system, which is called Verity. The eSlate machines generally have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years, he said, though he added that they do not stop working after 15 years.

[Rice computer science professor Dan] Wallach said that he is surprised that Texas’ eSlate machines have lasted as long as they have.

“We’ve got eSlates that are over 10 years old and in some cases approaching 20 years,” Wallach said. “Normally, computers don’t last that long.”

See here for the background. For the record, the first iPhones came out in 2007, so these machines are mostly at least five years older than that. However you view their utility and security today, the day is coming – likely soon – when we will have no choice but to replace these machines. At some point, they’re just not going to work anymore.

The eSlate issue

Everyone please take a deep breath.

Some straight-ticket voters have reported that voting machines recorded them selecting the candidate of another party for U.S. Senate, exposing a potential problem with the integrity of the state’s high-profile contest between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Beto O’Rourke and leading good government groups to sound the alarm.

Several Democratic voters, for example, have complained the voting system indicated they were about to cast a vote for Cruz, a Republican, instead of Democrat O’Rourke as they prepared to send it. Some said they were able to get help from staff at the polling place and change their votes back to what they intended before finalizing their ballots.

Most of the 15 to 20 people who have complained to the state so far said that their straight-ticket ballot left their vote for U.S. Senate blank, according to Sam Taylor, communications director for the Secretary of State. A spokesman for the Texas Civil Rights Project said the group has received about a half dozen complaints, mostly of Democratic straight ticket voters whose ballots erroneously included a vote for Cruz, and one Republican straight ticket voter whose ballot tabulated a vote for O’Rourke.

The problem occurs on the Hart eSlate voting machine when voters turn a selection dial and hit the “enter” button simultaneously, according to the state. Eighty-two of the 254 counties in Texas have these machines, although complaints have only come from Fort Bend, Harris, McLennan, Montgomery, Tarrant and Travis counties, according to Taylor.

The issue with the eSlate machine first surfaced in the 2016 presidential election. The Secretary of State’s office described it as user error at that time, and said the same of this year’s problems in an advisory sent to election workers issued this week.

“It does pop up from time to time,” said Taylor. Voters should “double and triple check and slow down” before casting their ballots, he said.

Although the state sent the advisory, the Civil Rights Project contends that more should be done to ensure voters understand the potential for wrongly recorded votes.

The group is pushing the state to post advisories to inform voters at the polls about the problem, and how to detect it.

“This is not an isolated issue but a symptom of a wider breakdown in Texas’s election systems,” said Beth Stevens, the organization’s voting rights director. “Texas voters should have full confidence that when they use a voting machine they are indeed casting their ballot of choice.”

I would dispute that this problem first surfaced in the 2016 election. We’ve heard a variation of problems like this going back to at least 2008. Here’s a post I wrote back then, in which there was confusion – some of which was being spread intentionally – about voting straight ticket and then clicking again on Obama/Biden, which of course would have the effect of canceling the vote in that race. This particular complaint may be relatively new, but reports of the voting machines not doing what the voters thought they were going to do have literally always been with us. It’s one part bad interface design, and one part user error.

The solution – for now – really is to review your ballot before you press the “cast vote” button. I do that in every election, because it’s always possible to not click what you thought you’d clicked, just like it’s possible to do that on your computer or tablet or cellphone. Election officials can and should do a more thorough job of educating voters about the voting machines – there are always new voters, and there are always voters who are not confident with electronic gadgets, and these people have as much right to vote the way they want to vote as anyone else – but the bottom line remains the same. Review your ballot before you commit to it, just like you review other transactions.

Here’s that advisory from the Secretary of State, and here’s the press release and letter to the SOS from the Texas Civil Rights Project. The TCRP is 100% correct that Texas needs to upgrade its voting machines, both to improve the interface and also to bolster security. As someone who works in cybersecurity, it’s unthinkable that we have voting systems that provide neither redundancy nor an audit trail. We know what a better system looks like, we just need a government that is willing to invest in it. We just need to vote in sufficient numbers to make that happen. The Trib has more.

Yeah, we’re still talking about the risk to our elections

And when we talk about these things, we talk to Dan Wallach.

When we think about those who defend the territorial integrity of our nation and state, we tend to imagine well-equipped members of the U.S. armed forces, or perhaps a square-jawed detachment of Texas Rangers. Increasingly, however, the twenty-first century battle for control of the American homeland is being fought in the computerized elections systems overseen by our humble county clerks.

Here in Texas, votes in federal and state elections are tallied independently by 254 local officials, one in each county seat, from big cities like Houston and Dallas to tiny courthouse towns like Tahoka and Floydada. If a hostile country decides to hack an election in Texas, that means pitting Russia’s (or Iran’s or North Korea’s or China’s) most skilled hackers against a group of officials and volunteers who may not even know their way around an iPhone.

“We’re asking county clerks, and for that matter local poll workers, to defend against a nation-state adversary,” says Dan Wallach, computer science professor at Rice and expert on election security issues. “That’s not a fair fight.”

Wallach, a graduate of J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson as well as U.C. Berkeley and Princeton, has made it his mission to assist local election administrators by helping to develop and advocate for the adoption of foolproof, verifiable election systems and policies in Texas. From 2011 to 2015, Wallach served on the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board; before that he led the National Science Foundation–funded ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections). Most recently, he’s been seen testifying before the Texas Senate on issues related to election security.

“From a security perspective, the systems that we use, these electronic voting systems, were never engineered with the threat model of foreign nation-state actors,” Wallach says of the status quo in Texas. “I have no idea if anybody’s planning to exploit them, but there’s no question that the vulnerabilities are present.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that remedies are within reach, if Texas is willing to invest money and other state-level resources to improve election security. Experts like Wallach have identified best practices that can make elections reliably secure for the current threat horizon. Wallach proposes what amounts to a three-step plan for improved election security: better machines, better oversight, and better contingency planning.

The rest of the story delves into those three steps; it begins of course with auditable voting machines that include printed ballots. Speaking from my perspective in the IT security field, I can confirm that every big company that wants to stay in business past tomorrow zealously captures, indexes, and monitors its systems’ log files, both to look for real-time anomalies and to provide a written record of what happened in the event of a breach or other failure. It’s just standard practice in the real world. Why our state government is so resistant to it for our election systems is a question for which they really need to be held accountable. I would also note that the $350 million price tag to replace every obsolete voting machine in the state, which apparently we can’t do unless the feds pick up the tab, is something we could easily afford if we wanted to do it. For now, assuming we don’t get a state government that’s willing to do this, our best bet is to work towards a federal government that will do it, presumably after 2020. And hope like hell in the meantime that nothing goes horribly wrong.

Final voter registration numbers

Busy last week.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County added more than 11,000 voters to its rolls in the final week before the registration deadline, the last wave in a surge of half a million new Texas voters since the March primaries.

Democrats are most likely to benefit from the increase because new voters, many of whom are young and/or nonwhite, are more likely to support their party, University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinhaus said.

“There is a long legacy of Democrats seeking to get more people registered, and the investment is likely to pay off,” Rottinghaus said. “This is a moment where there’s going to be a lot of nail biting from Republicans on election night.”

More than 66,000 residents registered to vote in Harris County since the spring, more than any other Texas county, according to the Texas Secretary of State. Since the 2014 midterms, Harris County has added 280,000 voters.

[…]

Rottinhaus cautioned that there is a poor correlation between voter registration and turnout. Even as more eligible Harris County voters have registered since the 1990s, turnout has declined. Republicans, he said, are hampered by their past success since they already have registered most of their potential voters. Democrats have more room to grow, he said, especially with Latinos, African Americans, new citizens and young people.

See here and here for some background. I’m sure what was intended in that last paragraph was that while overall turnout has gone up, at least in all of the Presidential year elections in the county, the percentage of turnout of registered voters has declined. Far more people voted in Harris County in 2016 than in 2008, for example, but the rate of turnout was slightly lower, precisely because there were so many more registrations.

Anyway. Putting the numbers together, we’re at 15.8 million statewide, and around 2,316,000 in Harris County. Keep that latter number in mind when you read this.

County Clerk Stan Stanart predicts up to a million Harris County residents could be casting ballots in a string of hotly-contested races.

One million voters in the county would be a lot for an off year – a record amount, in fact – but it would still only represent about 43% turnout. The high water mark so far is 2010, with just under 800K voters, and 41.7% turnout. Can we beat that? It feels a little crazy to say so, but I think we can. I also think we’d have a very different electorate with that one million this year than we did with that 800K eight years ago. I think we’re headed for new heights statewide, too. It’s on us to make sure the mix of voters is what we want it to be.

Today is the last day to register to vote

Take action as needed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As Texas’ Tuesday voting registration deadline approaches, Nasser and a number of other deputy voter registrars, volunteers allowed to register voters on the spot, were out in force Saturday evening. While many states allow voters to register the day of an election, Texas voters must register one month before. The last day voters can register for the Nov. 6 election is Tuesday, since Monday is a federal holiday and the voter registrar office will be closed.

Voters who still need to register must visit their county voter registrar office to drop off a completed application or print and postmark an application to their county voter registrar by Tuesday. People can also register to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license.

As part of the Motor Voter Act, a federal judge has ordered Texas to allow voters to register online, but such a system will not be implemented in time for this midterm election because the order has been stayed while Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appeals the decision. Nonetheless, the Texas voter rolls have grown to 15.6 million people, a new record that is 1.6 million higher than the last midterm election, according to Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos.

The last way to register is through a deputy voter registrar, which is why Nasser and a number of volunteers were standing outside the Festival Chicano.

[…]

States occasionally remove voters from the rolls. Such removals are meant to target felons and the deceased. Texas, however, sometimes mistakenly purges voters by incorrectly presuming them dead, according to a report by New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. Sometimes other mistakes are made, such as when 1,700 voter registrations were mistakenly suspended this year due to what Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett called a software glitch.

Voters can check whether they are registered on the Texas Secretary of State site, although the webpage is not the official register of a voter’s registration, which is instead kept by county voter registration offices.

Basically, if you were registered before and you haven’t moved, you should still be registered. You can certainly check if you want to – in Harris County, I’d go to the Tax Assessor website and search there; go to your county’s elections administration page if you’re in a different county – but if you’re a previously registered voter, you should have gotten your updated registration card this January. If you did, you should be fine.

We’ll see how high the final numbers get. The last update from Harris County was over a month ago, and I expect that to be up. I think we might approach 16 million, but that’s a bit optimistic. Nate Cohn, who is doing one of those “live polls” of the Senate race here, says their model is projecting 6.3 million voters for turnout, which is right at 40%. That’s what we had in 2010, by the way, but with far fewer voters. It starts with registration, that much is for sure. The DMN has more.