Walls Close In on Texas Secretary of State Behind Attempted Voter Purge

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

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley may have finally found the limit on just how far a Republican official in the state can go and still keep his job. Thursday, after weeks of public debate, hearings and lawsuits, the surest signs yet that Whitley's nomination was in real trouble emerged from the Capitol in Austin.

Things didn't have to be this way. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott nominated Whitley to his traditionally nonpartisan post in December. Whitley could've helped the state conduct its elections, helped Texans register to vote and cruised to easy Senate confirmation, securing his $135,000 annual salary.

Instead, with more than a little help from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Whitley issued a press release and advisory to Texas' 254 counties in January, warning that Texas had 95,000 potential noncitizens on its voter rolls. Whitley's announcement came on a Friday afternoon, and he got his headlines. Before the weekend was over, however, his list began to fall apart.

His office quickly advised counties not to take any action based on the list, because it might contain the names of naturalized citizens. At a hearing in front of the state Senate's nominating committee, he refused to take responsibility for jumping the gun with bad data, instead blaming the Texas Department of Public Safety. Advocacy groups filed three lawsuits against the state, claiming that the list and the actions Whitley initially demanded be taken unconstitutionally targeted naturalized citizens living in Texas.

Despite his halfhearted apology earlier this week, more than 30 community and activist groups signed a letter to Texas' 12 Senate Democrats on Thursday, pleading with them to stick together to block Whitley's nomination. He needs two-thirds approval, or 21 votes, from the Senate to keep his job. Republicans control the 31-seat chamber 19-12.

“Under no circumstances should Mr. Whitley be allowed to continue to serve as the Texas Secretary of State. The Senate Democratic caucus — and each of you individually — have the power to unite in defense of the voting rights of all Texans and stop his confirmation,” the letter, signed by the likes of the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Texas Democratic Party and the Texas AFL-CIO, stated.

Later Thursday, El Paso state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, chair of the Senate's Democratic caucus, announced that he would not vote to confirm Whitley.

"The damage has been done. Lies have been spread by the president and others, and left uncorrected. Many Texans mistakenly believe evidence of voter fraud has been found. Many now fear to vote, even though they are eligible. I cannot vote for this nominee," Rodriguez said.

According to reporting from the Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News, seven Senate Democrats — including Dallas' Royce West and Nathan Johnson — have joined Rodriguez in publicly opposing Whitley, narrowing the ranks of those the secretary of state could win over to win confirmation.

If things keep going the way they are, Whitley might not get a vote on the Senate floor at all. For the second consecutive week, the Senate nominations committee on Thursday declined to pass Whitley's confirmation out of the committee. If Whitley's nomination never advances to the Senate floor, he could potentially serve until the end of the legislative session this summer. At that point, Abbott could select a new nominee to serve until the Legislature convenes in 2021. That individual, crucially, would serve as secretary of state during the 2020 election. 

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