Accusations over State Voter Investigation

On the third and final day of a federal court hearing, attorneys for the state of Texas and civil rights groups continued to point fingers Monday over a state investigation into the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters.

The case has focused on the investigation’s potential to harm legally registered voters, particularly after state officials have acknowledged that the initial list of 95,000 suspect voters includes at least 25,000 naturalized U.S. citizens who are eligible to cast a ballot.

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have argued that opponents have mischaracterized the required-by-law investigation as an effort to “purge” voting rolls.

Civil rights attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to block the Texas secretary of state from further communications with county election officials on lists of suspected noncitizen voters.

They argued the state is unconstitutionally discriminating against U.S. citizens born outside the country since, because of the way the data were assembled, those citizens have to bear a burden to essentially prove their citizenship in ways that U.S.-born citizens do not.

Speaking of the voting rights of native-born and naturalized U.S. citizens, Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, “You can’t treat people differently simply because one is born inside the U.S. and one is born outside the U.S.”

The state “cannot do something that causes the voter to be intimidated,” said Luis Vera, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the other civil rights groups involved.

“This thing is aimed only at immigrants — no one else,” he said, adding that it “puts an undue burden on lawful voters.”

“The focus was never to target naturalized citizens,” responded Todd Disher, an attorney for the state attorney general’s office representing the secretary of state. He said the investigation was about using the “best available data” to provide counties a way to check their rolls.

Throughout testimony and arguments on Monday — including from Keith Ingram, head of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office; Betsy Schonhoff, a former official at the secretary of state’s office; and Pam Ohlendorf, the elections administrator for Caldwell County — the two sides sparred over whether state or county officials were to blame for problems with the investigation.

The state attorneys argued that county officials were instructed to conduct their own investigations about whether people who appeared on the lists should potentially be struck from the rolls.

Suspect voters will be mailed a letter saying their citizenship status is under investigation and giving them 30 days to show documents proving they are U.S. citizens, state lawyers have said.

Voter registration is automatically canceled for those who do not respond on time.

While Biery takes the request for a temporary restraining order under consideration, at least eight counties involved in a related case have agreed to no longer issue letters of notification to people on the list.

Biery called the sort of letters the secretary of state recommended counties send out to potentially illegal voters “nastygrams” that may be received by naturalized citizens who come from parts of the world in which people might have “fear of government.”

When you get a letter like this, he said, “you may not have a warm fuzzy feeling. They get this letter, and it says, ‘We’re from the government, and we’re watching you.’ ”

Faulting the state’s approach, Biery said it “appears original rollout wasn’t done in a laserlike way. More of a sledgehammer.”

He also wondered aloud about the practical harm caused by potentially low numbers of illegal voters in a state of 15 million voters.

Todd Disher, an attorney for the state, said that “the casting of an illegal ballot harms all Texans.”

In the meantime, the state’s investigation is continuing.

Ingram testified Monday that reviewing Department of Public Safety data from only January and February of this year, his office had found evidence that as many as an additional 1,000 Texans who might not be citizens are registered to vote.

The “ham-handed” rollout of the state investigation, as Biery described it, has already led to political fallout. Democratic senators have announced they will not vote to confirm Secretary of State David Whitley, dooming his chances.