AP NEWS

Voter purge fiasco leaves hefty tab

May 5, 2019

The Texas secretary of state’s botched attempt to purge citizens from the voter rolls delivered an expensive lesson about the importance of vetting information — even when it comes from another state agency.

The fiasco has left taxpayers on the hook for $450,000 in costs and legal fees for the lawyers representing plaintiffs in three lawsuits filed after Texas Secretary of State David Whitley questioned the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered Texas voters.

It has since been determined that most of the names landed on the purge list in error.

Last month, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project settled litigation they filed against the state.

Under the terms of the settlement, Whitley will rescind his controversial Jan. 25 advisory to elections officials across the state. That advisory said voter registration eligibility was in question due to noncitizen status and asked officials to send out notices seeking proof of citizenship from the voters if they wanted to remain registered.

In addition, the secretary of state’s office has agreed to do a more thorough vetting when it conducts future voter list maintenance procedures. That will include providing details of its methodology to plaintiffs’ lawyers before flagging any registered voters for investigation on suspicion that they may not be eligible to vote due to their immigration status.

Many of the voters on the initial purge list were in the country legally but not yet citizens when they applied for a driver’s license. Texas driver’s licenses are valid for several years, and immigration status can change during that period. The information is not updated until the license is renewed

Future vetting of immigration status by the secretary of state’s office will likely include checking the Texas Department of Public Safety list against a federal immigration database. This is what should have been done from the beginning. Challenging an individual’s right to vote is a serious charge. It should should not have required expensive litigation to arrive at the conclusion that the list needed to more carefully scrutinized.

The timing of the release of the purge list, late on a Friday, and the immediate political grandstanding on the alleged identification of fraudulent voters by Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and President Donald Trump only served to fan the embers of mistrust. It did not help that Whitley, a recent gubernatorial appointee to the job, tried to deflect blame by pointing a finger at DPS.

Ultimately, the responsibility lay with him and his blunders could cost him the job. Whitley has been meeting with state lawmakers to salvage his appointment and get confirmed by the Senate before the end of the legislative session May 27. He needs a two-thirds vote from the 31 senators to keep his job.

On Feb. 12, Senate Democrats said they could not support his appointment. If he does not get confirmation, Whitley is out of a job when the 86th Legislature adjourns Memorial Day weekend.

Restoring public trust in the secretary of state’s office is going to take time. Keeping Whitley in place will not help.