A day before the voter registration deadline for the midterms, state Sen. Don Huffines issued a demand for an "emergency" Texas Senate committee hearing on voter registration fraud, particularly the rampant, unprosecuted cases of immigrants registering and voting illegally.
At least Huffines seems to think it's rampant, but then he has a habit of pointing out this problem without having loads of evidence that foreigners and other bad people casting illegal votes is widespread at all.
According to the letter he sent to the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Election Security on Monday, “grassroots leaders claim that more than 4 million registered voters’ identifications cannot be verified by the Department of Public Safety’s records” and that “280,000 registered voters were not citizens at the time DPS issued them an identification card.” These grassroots leaders include conservative advocacy groups like Direct Action Texas, which did not respond to requests for comment about the origins of the 280,000 number.
Besides provenance, those numbers come loaded with a couple of other problems. First, DPS records for driver's licenses and state-issued identification cards are not designed to verify registered voters, and it's legal for non-drivers to register and vote in Texas. As for the 280,000, assuming it's accurate, there are other plausible reasons to explain it that don't require massive fraud.
Even if the 280,000 were all in fact non-citizens registered to vote — a big if — that's less than 2 percent of the more than 15 million registered voters in Texas so far. Huffines’ call for an emergency hearing in Dallas suggests fraud on a large scale, but there are countless statistics and studies that combat that claim.
On top of that, comparing DPS citizenship data against voter registration data doesn’t necessarily find people who are registering illegally. A non-citizen can legally obtain a driver’s license or state ID in Texas and later become a naturalized citizen who can vote. Or it might have been a bureaucratic or data-processing error that automatically registered a non-citizen to vote unintentionally. Clerical errors in government bureaucracies have been known to happen.
Nobody knows how many of the purported 280,000 registered voters fall under these categories, but Huffines is claiming that county officials are failing to prosecute non-citizen voters in droves — this after two solid years of Republican efforts to ferret out illegal voters in the state, which have so far netted exactly five criminal convictions.
So far, the most reliable count of non-citizens registered to vote come from comparing names on voting rolls to those who check the “non-citizen” box on a jury summons. Those make up only a tiny portion of the number of names county election officials routinely cull from voter registration rolls. Most of the removals, according to data from the Texas Secretary of State's office, are for things like voters moving or dying. (At one time, the dead made up a sizable voting population in parts of South Texas, but that no longer appears to be the case.)
In August, Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole told WFAA that since 2011, “174 voter registrations have been canceled for non-citizenship. Of those 174 canceled for non-citizenship, 22 voted in 38 various elections.”
All of this doesn’t mean there aren't non-citizens registered to vote, but beyond the rare cases of registered non-citizens getting called for jury duty, there is no way to tell right now. But Huffines suggests county election officials are failing to do their job by not seeking more criminal prosecutions of non-citizens sneaking into the voting booth.
Another explanation: the Secretary of State's huge volume of voter data and the DPS' equally huge volume of records are stored and managed in a way that doesn’t make for easy cross-referencing. That's expected to change come January, however, as the two departments have been working to develop a way to allow the Secretary of State’s office to check voter registration records against what the DPS knows about who's a citizen.
Even then, it's not simply a matter of cross-referencing records and filing criminal charges. Election rolls in Texas are largely handled at the county level, so when the new system of coordination does find a potential problem, the registered voter's name will be referred to the county level where officials will have to investigate: Is it a clerical error, fraud or did a newly nationalized citizen register to vote after he or she got his driver's license or ID card from the DPS?
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It's not hard to guess what Huffines believes is happening.
"The failure to prosecute illegal voting is just as troubling as the failure to enforce state law that limits the right to vote to U.S. citizens only," Huffines said in a press release. "...The numbers of non-citizens registering to vote and casting ballots is disturbing, and so is the uncertainty. Election administrators and prosecutors need to give voters straight answers and honest information immediately, and a Senate Select Committee hearing will give them that opportunity to set the record straight."
This assumes that the wisp of smoke found so far of illegal voting by non-citizens hides a raging fire. To be more fair to Huffines than he is to election officials, transparency and accuracy in the state voting rolls are needed to ensure that elections are free, fair and credible, especially when politicians are willing to shout fraud loudly and often without having hard evidence at hand.
But that cuts two ways: Kicking proud, new U.S. citizens off the voting rolls wrongly without proper investigation isn't going to help build confidence in the electoral system among our new countrymen. Removing native-born citizens from the rolls willy-nilly or making it harder for legitimate voters to cast ballots isn't going to help build credibility either. But GOP-led purges of voter registration rolls, restrictions on early voting, voter ID laws and other impediments to voting suggest they don't see disenfranchising citizens in droves as an emergency.