Texas Voter-Fraud Claims Don’t Have to Be True to Achieve Their Goal

So far there’s no evidence that anyone on a faulty list of registered voters cast an illegal ballot. That didn’t stop President Trump from decrying “voter fraud.”

Eric Gay / AP

Federal courts struck down Texas’s original voter-ID law, which would have required certain forms of government-issued identification in order to vote, deeming it intentional discrimination against minorities. But GOP officials who lead the state argued that the passage and implementation of the law was necessary to prevent voter fraud, and last year Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accepted the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold a slightly revised version of the law that would allow other forms of identity verification for people who can’t get the proper government-issued documentation.

Yet Republicans still don’t think the regulation has done the job. Last week, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s office sent an advisory to counties involving a list of people who’d been identified as potential noncitizens with a matching voter-registration record. Activists and media criticized the list as inaccurate and misleading. But that didn’t stop GOP officials from using the list as definitive proof of rampant voter fraud, despite having no evidence that anyone had voted illegally. Their fervor seemed to add to the suspicion that the party has an endgame well beyond “ballot security,” and to the fear that new forms of voter suppression are just on the horizon.

On January 25, Whitley sent out letters to counties with a list of 95,000 registered voters who were matched with people flagged by the Texas Department of Public Safety as being noncitizens. Whitley and his office did not provide much in the way of the methodology used in their 11-month-long review of public records, nor did they respond to requests for comment. But Whitley’s spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday that the release was “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.” Ostensibly, the letters were intended to begin a formal citizenship-review process, which would verify any claims of fraudulent ballots and also purge nonrespondents from voter rolls.

But from the outset, other forces were at work. The secretary of state’s office referred the members of the list to Paxton, who sounded the alarm via Twitter. “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” Paxton tweeted on January 25, “the [secretary of state] discovered approx 95,000 individuals identified by DPS as non-U.S. citizens have a matching voter registration record in TX, approx 58,000 of whom have voted in TX elections. Any illegal vote deprives Americans of their voice.” Said Paxton in a separate statement: “Every single instance of illegal voting threatens democracy in our state and deprives individual Texans of their voice.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott also tweeted about voter fraud that day, mentioning the case of Enrique Salazar Ortiz, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico in San Antonio who pleaded guilty to illegal voting in the 2016 election and to identity theft in October 2018, and who was apparently sentenced just the day before Whitley published his list.

Paxton, who has aggressively pursued isolated reports of voter fraud during his time in office, took care to only insinuate that the list referred to him was definitive evidence of mass voter fraud. President Donald Trump, however, managed no such nuance. “58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote,” he tweeted Sunday. “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID!”

This isn’t the first time Trump has spread misinformation about voter fraud, and it probably won’t be the last. But even assuming he simply misread the original notice from Whitley’s office or Paxton’s announcement, it’s now clear that both of those are on shaky ground. Texas Director of Elections Keith Ingram noted that the matches from the advisory list were only “weak matches” that could have improperly flagged people with identical or similar names to those in the voter-registration files. The Texas Tribune reports that several county elections officials have gotten notice from Whitley that perhaps thousands of the names on the original list shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Among those flagged properly, many who are in the files over the 22-year period they cover could have become naturalized citizens and then registered to vote, which could still trigger their inclusion on the list. And for the remaining registered voters who are actually noncitizens, many or most are added to rolls by clerical errors that are easily fixed. As of yet, there aren’t indications that any of the records on the list refer to anyone who’s voted fraudulently.

Friday, Ingram released a new advisory to all of Texas’s counties acknowledging that many of the records in the files likely belonged to naturalized citizens, calling the list a “starting point,” and outlining scenarios in which county officials wouldn’t need to send notices to flagged citizens.

Voting-rights advocates see the secretary of state’s advisory both as a mechanism of voter suppression itself and as a way of fomenting animus against immigrants in service of pursuing ever more restrictive voting laws. County officials are authorized to purge registered voters who don’t respond to their inquiries from the rolls, even if they aren’t fraudulent. As was the case with Georgia’s infamous voter purges under then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, this kind of purging will likely affect voters of color, poor voters, and those with unstable housing most. For voting-rights experts, this kind of activity, both from party apparatuses and from state authorities, is the leading edge of modern voter suppression.

That’s a real concern in Texas. “With this new Advisory, Texas officials have taken another page straight out of the voter suppression handbook,” said Beth Stevens, the voting-rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, in a statement. “The ‘investigation’ outlined by the Secretary of State is woefully inadequate and risks purging thousands of eligible Texans from the voting rolls.”

But there are other concerns, too. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was the vice chairman for Trump’s ill-fated voter-fraud commission, used the argument that a scattering of noncitizens found on voter rolls was the “tip of the iceberg” in a grand conspiracy of fraud. He championed a law that required new voters in Kansas to show proof of citizenship in order to register. That law would have added more restrictions to Kansas’s voter-ID law, already one of the strictest in the country. But last summer, a federal district court ruled against that additional requirement, writing: “Instead, the Court draws the more obvious conclusion that there is no iceberg; only an icicle, largely created by confusion and administrative error.”

With Kobach and Trump as its face, it seems clear enough now that hard conservatism doesn’t see voter-ID laws as the necessary end of its crusade against what it calls voter fraud. Nor does it appear that this effort has necessarily been swayed by the total absence of data showing widespread in-person voter fraud—by citizens or noncitizens. But, as illustrated by Georgia’s example in 2018, it also seems clear that the purges and new voting restrictions favored by Republicans in order to deal with “new” whispers of fraud uniquely and disproportionately disadvantage legitimate voters who tend to vote for Democrats. There’s advantage enough for the GOP in chasing the conspiracy forever, voting-rights advocates maintain, even if it never quite proves it exists.