CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – Harsh criticism is mounting against Texas Republicans’ announcement of 95,000 registered voters possibly not being citizens, as a group of naturalized citizens filed a lawsuit Saturday claiming voter suppression while county officials quickly ruled out 20,000 of the names.
Lead plaintiff Julieta Garibay of Travis County plus six other naturalized citizens and three voter advocacy groups sued Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott in Corpus Christi federal court.
Whitley issued the advisory to county officials on Jan. 25, stating the individuals were flagged when comparing voter rolls with Texas Department of Public Safety records stating they were not citizens when they applied for state driver’s licenses or identification cards.
Whitley said that approximately 58,000 of those flagged have since voted in at least one Texas election. He referred the names to Paxton’s office and individual counties for verification and possible prosecution.
Voting illegally as a noncitizen in Texas is a second-degree felony that carries up to 20 years in state prison.
Whitley did not go as far as to say all 58,000 definitively voted illegally, nor did he say when or how the results of the county investigations will be made public. It is currently unknown how many of the flagged voters have since become naturalized citizens.
In spite of the uncertainty, prominent state and national Republicans quickly touted the announcement on social media as proof of voter fraud. President Donald Trump incorrectly tweeted that “58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote” in the state. Trump has insisted, without evidence, that 3 million people voted illegally in the 2016 general election that cost him the popular vote.
Abbott tweeted his thanks to Paxton and Whitley for “uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration” and retweeted Paxton’s “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” after Whitley’s announcement.
Saturday’s 36-page complaint states that driver’s licenses issued to legal permanent residents are valid for six years, giving immigrants plenty of time to become naturalized citizens and register to vote.
“Since sending the records of naturalized citizen voters to the counties, the secretary of state’s office has contacted the counties to advise them that the data is flawed,” the complaint states. “However, the secretary of state has neither withdrawn the list of suspect voters nor advised the counties to refrain from acting on the flawed information.”
Local officials in four larger Texas counties have reported substantial errors in the number of names Whitley’s office forwarded them. Officials in Harris County, home of Houston, said approximately 18,000 of the nearly 30,000 people flagged in their county will be removed from the list, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Dallas County officials told The Dallas Morning News that 1,715 of their 9,938 flagged registered voters were incorrectly included. Officials in Williamson and Travis counties report at least 50 and 14 percent have been removed from their lists, respectively.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which claims Whitley’s announcement “singled out naturalized citizens for investigation and possible removal from voter rolls based solely on the fact that they were born outside the United States,” infringing on their rights under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act.
“Texas officials launched this flawed voter purge after Latino voters doubled their turnout since the last midterm elections,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at MALDEF. “Targeting naturalized citizens, 75 percent of whom are Latino and Asian American in Texas, is a naked attempt to strip minority voters from the rolls.”
Galveston County Tax Assessor-Collector Cheryl Johnson is a co-defendant in the lawsuit, as her office has already acted on the advisory and mailed out citizenship verification requests to those on the list.
Co-plaintiff Elena Keane is a Galveston County resident who claims she was mailed a letter from Johnson’s office stating “there is reason to believe you may not be a United States citizen” and that she would be removed from voter rolls unless she provided a certified copy of her citizenship papers within 30 days.
Keane claims she has “been stigmatized as a person who might have registered to vote illegally” in spite of being a naturalized citizen.
Saturday’s complaint comes days after the League of United Latin American Citizens filed the first lawsuit in the dispute in San Antonio federal court, claiming the “carefully crafted” voter fraud program is meant to intimidate Hispanic voters and violates the Voting Rights Act.
Paxton’s office could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas entered the dispute Monday morning when it filed a third lawsuit against Whitley in Galveston federal court. Representing the League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP of Texas, among others, the ACLU claims county officials in Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell, and Washington counties in addition to Galveston County have sent out verification notices to those on the list.
“The right to vote is sacrosanct. Yet, the Texas secretary of state has engaged in a sloppy exercise that threatens to unfairly strip people of the opportunity to participate in American democracy,” said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “Even after we told Texas officials that this would happen, they doubled down on this failed experiment and left us with no other recourse but to take this to court.”