Texas Senate Democrats grilled new Secretary of State David Whitley on Thursday over his office's decision to partner with Attorney General Ken Paxton on an announcement that more than 95,000 noncitizens might be registered to vote in Texas.
In the two weeks since the announcement, Whitley and Paxton's claims have largely been debunked by reporting from news outlets around the state and the Secretary of State's Office itself, which quietly called multiple Texas counties to admit that thousands of the names included on a list of potential noncitizens sent to the counties shouldn't have been there in the first place.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitley in December. The Texas Senate wasn't in session at the time, but it is now, meaning Whitley will be up for confirmation after the fact. He needs two-thirds support in the chamber to keep his job. With Republicans holding 19 seats and Democrats holding 12, thanks to a couple of upsets in November, Whitley needs support from two Democrats to get confirmed.
If Thursday's hearing is any guide, getting those votes isn't going to be easy.
After several senators grilled Whitley over the faulty data distributed by his office — he said that he'd trusted the initial Texas Department of Public Safety data he'd relied on to build the list — Dallas state Sen. Royce West peppered the secretary of state with questions about whether he'd engaged in voter suppression.
"Are you familiar with the concept of voter suppression?" West asked Whitley.
"Anecdotally, I've heard voter suppression talked about," Whitley replied.
"Do you believe that the wording of your press statement could intimidate people not to vote?" West asked.
"I've understood, senator, that that's been said about the press release, and I think that, looking back, that if there's anything I could change about how this process has worked, I would include more substantive data and information from our elections advisory," Whitley said.
Just like the press release, the elections advisory Whitley issued was littered with inaccuracies about the number of people who might be improperly registered in Texas, as well as how many of those people might have cast ballots.
Upon further questioning from West, Whitley refused to say how he defined voter suppression, telling the long-serving senator that it was irrelevant
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"You're the secretary of state, sir, and it's relevant to whether I'm going to vote for your confirmation," West shot back.
Whitley never answered the question.
"I think ensuring accurate voter rolls actually encourages participation," Whitley said, after telling West that "anecdotally" he's heard that voter suppression discourages people from voting.
The nominations committee did not vote to move Whitley's confirmation to the Senate floor Thursday, but that's not uncommon for a first hearing.