According to emails made public Tuesday and first brought to light by San Antonio Express-News reporter Guillermo Contreras, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pushed for an investigation of potential noncitizens voting in mass numbers in Texas during the summer of 2018.
The emails document 46 pages of back-and-forth between the Texas Secretary of State's Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Abbott's office about how the now-infamous list of Texas registered voters who might not be citizens could be compiled.
“The Governor is interested in getting this information as soon as possible,” wrote Amanda Arriaga, the director of the DPS' driver's license division in an Aug. 27 email.
Later the same day, another DPS official, John Crawford, indicated that compiling the data was a priority for the governor.
“We delivered this information earlier in the year, and we have an urgent request from the Governor’s Office to do it again,” Crawford wrote.
Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment from the Observer on Tuesday afternoon. Abbott spokesman John Wittman denied that his boss leaned on DPS for the voter data to the Austin American-Statesman, however.
“This is patently false,” Wittman told the Statesman. “Neither the governor nor the governor’s office gave a directive to initiate this process.”
Once Abbott-appointed Secretary of State David Whitley's office was able to get what it felt was sufficient data, it sent out a voter advisory in late January, asking voter registrars around the state to look into a list of more than 95,000 names of potential noncitizen voters.
As quickly as the advisory and its accompanying press releases from Whitley and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went out, doubts began to grow about the validity of the secretary of state's list.
By the time Whitley testified to a Texas Senate committee hearing called to discuss his nomination two weeks after he issued his advisory, his claims about rampant voter fraud had largely been debunked by 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, 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.
“He threw Whitley and the DPS secretary under the bus. All along it was the governor pushing for (the program).” — Luis Vera
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.
Voting rights groups filed several lawsuits against the state, eventually leading to an agreement that required Texas not to use the list Abbott pushed DPS so hard for, not to challenge any voter registrations and to pay the plaintiffs' $450,000 in attorney's fees.
The emails released Tuesday are part of the discovery process in one of those suits.
"CLC released these public documents received during litigation in the interest of transparency. One of the things these documents show is that as early as August 2018, the Governor's office was prioritizing the botched voter purge program that ended with our settlement this spring," said Mark Gaber, director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center.
Luis Vera, the national general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, which helped the Campaign Legal Center argue the case against the attempted purge in court, said the emails show how deeply the governor was involved in the process.
“The bottom line is this was the governor’s program,” he told the Express-News' Contreras. “He threw Whitley and the DPS secretary under the bus. All along it was the governor pushing for (the program).”