Alarms as Texas quietly restart controversial voting program | Texas

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Texas officials have quietly revived a controversial program to require voters to prove their citizenship, raising alarms that thousands of eligible voters could be wrongly targeted.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office has identified just under 12,000 people it suspects to be non-citizens since September, when the program restarted (there are more than 17 million registered voters in the Texas). Approximately 2,327 voter registrations have been canceled so far. The vast majority of cancellations were due to voters failing to respond to a notice giving them 30 days to prove their citizenship.

The Secretary of State will flag anyone as a suspected non-citizen if they register to vote, then go to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the state’s driver licensing agency , and indicates that she is not a citizen.

Local election officials from Texas’ 254 counties are then asked to review the names. If these officials cannot verify citizenship, they are required to send them a letter asking them to prove their citizenship within 30 days, otherwise their voter registration is canceled.

But election officials in Harris County, the state’s most populous, are concerned about the accuracy of the data used to challenge voters.

After the county mailed requests for proof of citizenship to 2,796 people, 167 voters – nearly 6% of those contacted – responded with proof of citizenship. The state has removed 161 more people from the list of people whose citizenship needs to be verified, according to a county official.

“We are not confident in the quality of the information on which we are mandated to act,” Isabel Longoria, the county electoral administrator, said in an email.

In Fort Bend County, just outside Houston, authorities sent notices to 515 people in October. About 20% responded with proof of citizenship and the rest were struck off the lists, according to John Oldham, the county’s electoral administrator. Many people who responded said they accidentally ticked a box during their DPS transaction indicating that they were not citizens, Oldham said.

In Cameron County, along the US-Mexico border, election officials have sent 246 letters since September, almost all to people with Hispanic last names, according to the Texas Monthly, which first reported the reboot. from the program. About sixty people have been canceled to date.

After the notices circulated, a married couple who had heard of the notices came to the election office to provide their naturalization papers, although the couple’s citizenship was not contested, said Remi Garza, the administrator of the county elections.

“It saddened me too,” Garza said. “People who shouldn’t have to worry about this type of proof of citizenship felt they had to.

Voting rights groups say they are trying to gain a better understanding of the process used by the state, but fear eligible voters may be targeted.

“An American citizen voter who receives a letter of protest is understandably intimidated. And especially for naturalized American citizens, who went through a whole bureaucratic process to be able to vote, receiving a letter accusing them of being an ineligible voter is particularly intimidating, ”said Nina Perales, lawyer for Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational. Funds. “People will naturally assume, based on this official correspondence, that they may have made a mistake or that they are not good voters.”

The program had been on hold since 2019, when a federal judge ordered Texas to stop a similar, error-filled effort he called “clumsy.” As part of a settlement in the case, Texas agreed to only report people if they registered to vote before the DPS visit in which they indicated they were not citizens. He also agreed to reinstate and challenge voters who provided proof of citizenship, even if it was outside the 30-day window.

The citizenship check comes as Republicans move to dampen the rapidly growing political power of Texas’ non-white population. Texas prosecutors have called for criminal penalties for people, including non-citizens, who commit voting errors and Attorney General Ken Paxton has zealously pursued allegations of voter fraud, which is extremely rare in the Texas and elsewhere.

Bruce Elfant, whose office oversees voter registration in Travis County, said his office has so far been able to confirm internally that less than 100 of the 300 to 400 people reported by the secretary’s office of state were citizens. Most of the group had been flagged for clerical errors, he said. His office has yet to send out a protest notice and is waiting for more information before doing so.

In El Paso County, state officials referred 4,000 suspected non-citizens back for review, and about 300 had already offered proof of citizenship, said Lisa Wise, the county’s electoral administrator. The county is not currently revoking the registration of any unresponsive voters, she said.

Federal law prohibits public servants from carrying out mass voter cancellations within 90 days of a primary election. The Texas primary takes place on March 1, so the state can’t remove anyone who doesn’t respond to a proof of citizenship letter until late spring.

Thomas Buser-Clancy, senior attorney for the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization was trying to figure out why eligible voters were being flagged, but it was clear “something is wrong.”

“Even if your system flags an eligible voter and threatens to remove them, that’s a problem,” he said. “If you have hundreds of them, and if you add them up across the counties, you probably get thousands of eligible voters, facing impeachment.”

Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office, said he was confident in the data.

“We are following the settlement agreement exactly as we are supposed to. If counties have additional information that allows them to cross off the list of people who have in fact become citizens and are legally registered to vote, that is fine. This is how the process is supposed to work.

But Buser-Clancy noted that those who were able to assert their citizenship were likely only a fraction of eligible voters who were likely affected.

“These are the lucky people who both received the notice, who actually went through their mail, looked at it and had the documentation in hand to send,” he added. “What this tells you is that there is another percentage of people who are going to be struck off the lists even though they are eligible voters.”

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