AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Republican Texas Secretary of State David Whitley defended his release of a flawed list of 95,000 registered voters identified as possible noncitizens at his confirmation hearing Thursday, with critics opposing him over the embarrassing voting suppression claims that have resulted in the swift removal of tens of thousands of names from the list.
Whitley was appointed to the position over a month ago by Republican Governor Greg Abbott. He was one of many political appointees answering questions from the state Senate Committee on Nominations at the Texas Capitol on Thursday morning.
Whitley’s answers at the hearing are his first public statements since he issued an advisory on Jan. 25 to county voter registrars that claimed 95,000 registered voters were flagged as possibly being noncitizens when they applied for state driver’s licenses or identification cards and asked local officials to confirm each person’s citizenship status.
His office compiled the list by comparing Texas Department of Public Safety Records with voter rolls and said approximately 58,000 of those flagged have since voted in at least one Texas election. He also referred the names to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office for possible prosecution.
Voting illegally as a noncitizen in Texas is a second-degree felony that carries up to 20 years in state prison.
Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, asked Whitley if there were “unintended consequences” to releasing the list regarding Latino voters.
“Senator, I want to be very clear with you – no data from DPS or our office that was transmitted to counties included anything about race or ethnicity,” Whitley answered.
He largely deflected questions over whether his office made mistakes, adding that his office did caution counties that there might be mistakes in portions of the list they were each sent.
Whitley also dodged a question by Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, on if he believed the wording of his advisory could intimidate people against voting, stating “if there is anything I could change, I would have included more substantive data and information” in his press release.
“How do you define voter suppression?” West asked.
“I think it is irrelevant,” Whitley replied.
“Sir, you are the secretary of state. It is relevant to me if I am going to vote for your confirmation,” West said. “Easy question.”
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.
Whitley has not gone as far as to say all 58,000 definitively voted illegally, nor has he said 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.
At least three lawsuits have since been filed against Whitley and Texas Republicans alleging voter suppression and civil rights violations with the announcement of the list.
The League of United Latin American Citizens filed suit in San Antonio federal court last week, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Corpus Christi federal court. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed a third lawsuit on Monday in Galveston federal court.
Whitley’s confirmation hearing comes three days after the Mexican American Legislative Caucus called on the Texas Senate to reject his confirmation. Headed by Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, the group said he should not be confirmed if he cannot serve in a nonpartisan matter.
“We need to have a chief elections officer in the state who is neither a Republican nor a Democrat and is not a player in the game,” Anchia said at a press conference at the Capitol. “They have to be a neutral umpire. And if our chief election officer is not playing it straight, then he should not be confirmed, period, full stop.”
He said Whitley’s advisory was “a scandal” that “we are viewing in real time.”
“It is either, in the best-case scenario for Secretary Whitley, a scandal of incompetence and at worst it is a scandal of maliciousness,” Anchia said.
The editorial board of the Houston Chronicle weighed in Wednesday, saying it does not normally opine on a confirmation hearing for an “obscure and nominally nonpartisan” state office such as Whitley’s that “has been tarnished by a civil rights scandal that garnered national attention and condemnation”
“We’ll recommend a loud and resounding no,” the board wrote. “Texans deserve an official they can trust to oversee elections across the state. Gov. Greg Abbott, too, deserves an appointee whose every move won’t be justifiably second-guessed. Our state isn’t lacking for Republican politicos who could serve in this role.”