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Texas Secretary of State David Whitley appears at a Texas Senate hearing on Feb. 7.EXPAND
Texas Secretary of State David Whitley appears at a Texas Senate hearing on Feb. 7.
Texas Senate

Breaking Down Texas Republicans’ Biggest 2019 Black Eye

One could be forgiven for not noticing that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, the man behind the attempted voter purge that drew so much local, state and national media attention during the first half of 2019, exited the political stage Monday afternoon. It was Memorial Day, after all, and the legislature was in the midst of its last full day of work until it reconvenes in 2021.

Whitley needed two-thirds of the Texas Senate to sign off on his keeping the job to which he'd been appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in December. In January, before he sent an advisory to counties around the state suggesting that they might have 95,000 noncitizens on their voter rolls, Whitley was a shoo-in for confirmation. By the end of February, however, he was dead in the water, with each of the Senate's 12 Democrats coming out against his keeping his job.

"It was just a complete unforced error," Rice University political science professor Mark Jones says. "Whitley committed two major errors. One is, upon arriving in office, he let that letter go out to county clerks without engaging in due diligence. Then, on his first opportunity to meet with senators, he was overly defensive."

By the time Whitley slunk into a Texas Senate committee hearing to discuss his nomination two weeks after he issued his advisory, his claims about rampant voter fraud had largely been debunked by reporting from news outlets around the state. His own office even quietly called multiple counties to admit that thousands of names included on a list of potential noncitizens sent to the counties shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Rather than taking responsibility for his screw-up, Whitley blamed the Texas Department of Public Safety, the agency from which he'd obtained the data he used to compile his list. When Dallas state Sen. Royce West asked the secretary of state about potential voter suppression, Whitley was evasive.

"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.

Both the press release and the elections advisory Whitley issued were 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.

"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.

Had Whitley immediately taken responsibility for his list and the aftermath of its relief, Jones says, the secretary of state may have been confirmed.

"It was just an incompetent thing to do. You're secretary of state and you just arrived in office," Jones said. "Only if you live in an unreal world where you believe that millions of undocumented immigrants are voting would those numbers not raise multiple red flags."

With Whitley's official resignation, Abbott now gets to appoint another secretary of state to serve until the next scheduled session of the legislature in 2021. Jones says it would behoove the governor to nominate someone who isn't as antagonistic toward Democrats.

"(Abbott's) previous strategy of appointing Latino Republicans was a smart one," he says. "Carlos Cascos and Rolando Pablos were seen as Republicans, but they weren't seen as over-the-top Republicans."

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