Another GOP Voter Fraud Claim Falls Apart, and Democrats See an Opening

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley testifies at his confirmation hearing in Austin. 

The latest overblown Republican claims of voter fraud have been thoroughly debunked, now that a federal judge has blocked a massive voter purge in Texas, and accused GOP election officials there of creating a “mess” that intimidated vulnerable voters.

But instead of eating crow, Republicans are doubling down. In Texas, even as a federal judge intervened, Republican state senators were advancing a bill that would erect fresh barriers to registration and voting. And President Donald Trump, having tweeted in January that the supposed illegal voting in Texas was “the tip of the iceberg” told GOP officials this week that they needed to be “careful” in upcoming elections, “because I don’t like the way the votes are being tallied.”

Nevertheless, GOP voter fraud claims and voter restriction efforts could come back to haunt Republicans in 2020. In Texas, the debacle that began when GOP Acting Secretary of State David Whitley announced erroneously in January that 95,000 noncitizens had registered in Texas, and 58,000 had voted, removed more than a dozen eligible voters from the rolls. (They were later reinstated.) Latino voting rights advocates, who successfully sued to block the Texas purge, predict a voter backlash.

Voting rights could also cut in Democrats’ favor on the campaign trail next year, as they promote legislation to restore voter protections, and champion poll-tested democracy reforms. House Democrats last month approved a popular bill to overhaul the campaign-finance, lobbying, ethics and redistricting rules, and are moving ahead with voting rights legislation—the Voting Rights Advancement Act—on a separate track.

Neither bill is expected to go anywhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, but Democrats have made voting rights a central campaign theme. Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost last year’s gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp, has refused to talk to any 2020 presidential hopeful who won’t tell her “what you’re going to do about voter suppression.” On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has revived the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections, which Republicans had disbanded in 2013, and placed Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge in charge.

That panel is now holding field hearings to spotlight voter suppression tactics around the country, and build the case for restoring the voter protections stripped away by the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling. That panel hosted a listening session on voting rights in Brownsville, Texas, in February, focusing in part on the closure of hundreds of polling places in Texas since the Shelby decision. A Georgia field hearing focused on voter purges, long lines, and voting machine breakdowns. Additional hearings are planned in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, are also investigating “voter irregularities” in multiple states in 2018. The panel and its Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, chaired by Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, sent letters earlier this year to Kemp and to Georgia’s secretary of state, demanding information on voter purges and registration suspensions that disproportionately targeted voters of color. 

Last week, Cummings and Raskin expanded their probe to Kansas and Texas. The Kansas letter requests information about the removal of the single polling place in Dodge City, Kansas, which is 60 percent Latino, outside the city limits. The two also launched an investigation of the botched voter purge in Texas, requesting all communications between Whitley and other state, local, and county officials, and with the Trump administration. 

“We are disturbed by reports that your office has taken steps to remove thousands of eligible American voters from the rolls in Texas and that you have referred many of these Americans for possible criminal prosecution for exercising their right to vote,” wrote Cummings and Raskin. The letter cites reports that tens of thousands of voters, including at least 18,000 in Harris County, 1,700 in Dallas County, all the voters in McLennan County, and “even a staff member for the El Paso County election administrator,” were erroneously flagged as ineligible.

It’s not the first time Republicans have screamed bloody murder over voter fraud, only to see their allegations discredited. Texas officials got into trouble in part because they matched voter rolls with driver’s license records—but failed to take into account that when legal permanent residents become citizens, there is no requirement that they update driver records to reflect that. Thousands of Texans become legal citizens every month, and many erroneously landed on the state’s ineligible voter list.

In 2012, similar matching efforts in Florida and Colorado also led to GOP claims that thousands of noncitizens were on the rolls, which were later largely withdrawn. A University of Florida study later linked the state’s resulting voter purge effort with an increase in voter turnout. As political scientist Michael McDonald told The Washington Post, “people became offended that they had been flagged in this way. And they turned out in higher numbers.” In Texas and around the country, Republicans’ voter fraud obsession may be one they come to regret.

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