Civil rights groups sue to force Texas to release voter purge records

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by Taylor Goldenstein, Austin Bureau Houston Chronicle

Keith Downey of Kashmere Gardens holds up a fist in solidarity during a rally sponsored by Beto O'Rourke's Powered By People at Finnigan Park in Houston's Fifth Ward on Sunday, June 13, 2021. The tour was hitting multiple counties in Texas to drum up support for voting rights.

photo credit: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Feb. 2, 2022 Updated: Feb. 2, 2022 9:03 p.m.

A coalition of civil rights groups is suing the Secretary of State’s Office for withholding documents concerning a voter purge program targeting immigrants that was mandated by the new Republican-backed election law.

The law, passed after a heated partisan battle last summer, requires that the office conduct regular sweeps of the voter rolls to verify citizenship status by cross-checking data provided by the Texas Department of Public of Safety.

Without the data requested, the groups say they can’t confirm that the state is complying with a 2019 settlement agreement that came as a result of a botched voter purge effort that year. Early reports from county officials that the lists have included people who registered at their naturalization ceremonies have further raised attorneys’ suspicions.

Hearst Newspapers has requested similar information regarding the people who are at risk of having their voter registrations revoked and has also been told the records are exempt from public records laws. The secretary of state has asked the Attorney General’s Office to rule on the matter.

How many voters has the secretary of state flagged in the state’s largest counties?

The state has questioned the citizenship status of the following amounts of voters:

  • 3,063 Harris County
  • 1,385 Dallas County
  • 708 Tarrant County
  • 327 Collin County

Source: Texas Secretary of State

The Secretary of State’s Office declined to comment on the suit.

So far, 11,737 registered voters had been flagged as potential noncitizens, including about 2,900 Harris County residents. As of Dec. 31, 2,552 voter registration records had been canceled through the process, though the process is now on hold because of a federal law pausing any removals within 90 days of an election.

The majority of the removed voters never responded to a notice giving them 30 days to verify their citizenship, and 382 were confirmed to be noncitizens and removed from the rolls.

Harris County has so far been able to confirm the citizenship status of two voters. Most of the rest were sent notices in November, and of those, 263 have responded with proof of citizenship and will not be removed.

RELATED: Here comes another Texas voter purge, but this time with a wrinkle

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Austin, alleges that the office is violating the National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 law that requires public disclosure of records pertaining to the maintenance of voter rolls.

The civil rights groups — including the ACLU, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and DĒMOS — had requested records showing every individual identified under the program as a potential noncitizen as well as the information the secretary of state used to determine a voter’s suspected citizenship status.

“Texas can’t shirk its obligations under federal law to release information about its new voter purge program,” said Ashley Harris, attorney at the ACLU of Texas, one of the plaintiff organizations. “The public deserves to know why Texas continues to falsely flag U.S. citizens for removal from the voter rolls.”

Removals are now on hold until at least after the March 1 primary election, if not the May 24 runoff, because of the freeze mandated by federal law within 90 days of an election. Anyone who received a notice within that time period will have that extra time to send their proof of citizenship.

‘They felt insulted’

State law allows voters whose registration was canceled under this process because they missed the deadline to later send proof of U.S. citizenship so they can be reinstated, including at the polling place.

Remi Garza, the president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said county officials often don’t have the data necessary to verify voters’ citizenship status on their own.

“We’re not generally set up as an investigative office,” Garza, who serves as election administrator for Cameron County. Aside from asking the voter for documentation, “we don’t have a whole lot of authority to request information.”

Some counties, like Bexar and Travis, happen to keep data on voters who register at naturalization ceremonies, but it’s not required by law. At the end of last year, the counties respectively found 15 and 17 percent of the flagged possible noncitizens filled out their registration applications at a ceremony, the Texas Tribune reported.

Travis County has not sent any letters to voters while it works to verify citizenship. For example, about 175 of the remaining 295 voters whose citizenship the county has not yet confirmed have Social Security numbers on file, which suggests they are citizens.

Multiple county officials said they had received calls from concerned and upset voters, many of whom had voted for years without issue, who didn’t understand why they were being asked to prove themselves.

“They felt insulted,” Garza said. “They were very emotional about having to provide this.”

Sloppy data in ’19 purge

In 2019, the state questioned the citizenship status of almost 100,000 voters. Later, state officials admitted in court that they did not try to weed out the immigrants who had been naturalized before sending lists of potential illegal voters to county elections officials. In fiscal year 2019, more than 97,000 individuals became naturalized U.S. citizens in Texas, according to the suit.

Several Latino civil rights groups sued, alleging it was discriminatory, and the state entered into a settlement agreement that put an end to that program and limited future reviews to only those who signed up to vote before they presented documents to DPS indicating that they were not citizens.

The debacle led then-Secretary of State David Whitley to apologize to state lawmakers, saying the lists should have been reviewed more carefully, and the Texas Senate ultimately forced him out of office.

MORE ON THAT: Texas official apologizes for inaccuracy of voter purge list

Republican lawmakers who supported the bill said the state has learned valuable lessons from that last attempt and insist the latest effort is better thought-out.

The plaintiff attorneys aren’t taking their word for it.

“The Secretary of State’s voter purge program once again surgically targets naturalized U.S. citizens for investigation and removal from the voter rolls,” said Nina Perales, MALDEF vice president of litigation. “Naturalized U.S. citizens have the same right to vote as all other citizens, and this new lawsuit seeks to ensure that Texas treats its voters fairly.”

taylor.goldenstein@chron.com

twitter.com/taygoldenstein

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