By James Barragán, Robert T. Garrett and Julieta Chiquillo
At least 20,000 people whom state officials put on a list of potential non-citizen voters have now been removed from those lists after the state told counties that data it provided were flawed, local officials said on Wednesday.
And Secretary of State David Whitley, whose office has gone silent in giving direction to county election administrators and responding to the news media, told civil rights groups late Wednesday that he'll respond to them "within the next week." The 13 groups have asked Whitley, a recent appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott, to withdraw his request for counties to review nearly 100,000 Texans' eligibility to vote.
Amid widespread confusion, only fragmentary information on Whitley's flawed data could be learned.
Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole said the county's voter-roll database vendor has identified 1,715 people as being incorrectly placed on an initial list of 9,938 registered voters sent to the county over the weekend.
The share that was flawed, 17 percent, hasn't been confirmed by state officials yet but could climb if the officials flag more people as being on the list erroneously, she said.
Officials in Collin and Denton counties said they don't yet know what percentage of the names they were sent shouldn't have been on the list.
In some big urban counties, though, the magnitude of error appeared massive.
Harris County officials told the Houston Chronicle that 60 percent -- or about 18,000 -- of the nearly 30,000 people the state had originally put on their list would have to be removed.
Williamson County's Chris Davis, president of the Association of Texas Elections Administrators, said that more than half of the 2,033 voters on his county's list were being removed after the state's revision.
"We've removed over half of the names" from the secretary of state's original list, Davis said in an email. "No numbers yet, as we're still working hard to vet the remaining names."
In Travis County, Tax Office spokeswoman Tiffany Seward said the culling will continue and take some time. But so far, she said, 634 -- or 14 percent -- of the people the state identified for review in Travis County over the weekend have been removed.
On Friday, Whitley's office sent an advisory to counties saying that about 95,000 people who received driver licenses -- while legally in the country, but not U.S. citizens -- also appeared on Texas voter rolls. Of them, 58,000 voted in one or more elections between 1996 and 2018, Whitley's office said. It asked counties to review the eligibility of people on the list.
The announcement was celebrated by staunch conservatives who for years have sought a tightening of voter-eligibility requirements. Democrats and voting rights advocates, though, denounced Whitley's move as a partisan push by state GOP leaders to purge minorities from the voter rolls. Opponents also questioned the methodology Whitley's office used, dismissing the process as "woefully inadequate."
By Tuesday, the state quietly started to backtrack. Whitley aides began calling individual counties, advising that numbers supplied Saturday night were incorrect. That's because some people on the list already satisfied the Department of Public Safety they were U.S. citizens while registering to vote through the Texas driver's license process.
The biggest burden of removing people from Whitley's original lists will fall on the counties with the biggest populations.
That's because of the peculiar way in which Texas counties transmit voter applicants' information to Whitley's office, with major urban counties required to batch up their applications, officials explained.
On Wednesday, confusion reigned.
In Austin, Travis County Tax Collector Bruce Elfant's office posted on its website a statement recounting that when it received its call from the state Tuesday, the prospect was raised that some people on the list were non-citizens at the time they obtained driver's licenses. But they've been naturalized since, said the site of Elfant, who is Travis County's top election official.
"During this call, the secretary of state's office confirmed that the records we received may include voters who were not citizens at the time they applied for a driver's license but have since become citizens," it said. "There is no code on these records to help us identify them for removal from the list."
Many counties have asked the state to provide them with a new list of numbers that removes the names of people who registered while obtaining driver's licenses. They have also asked the secretary of state's office to provide a written update to its initial advisory. Whitley's office has not responded publicly to those requests.
On Wednesday, Whitley spokesman Sam Taylor declined to respond to queries. On Tuesday, he initially declined to comment on the advisory and subsequent miscues, citing a lawsuit filed against the office and Attorney General Ken Paxton by the League of United Latin American Citizens. Later in the day, he issued a prepared statement saying that the office would continue to provide counties with information to verify voter eligibility.
In the suit by the Hispanic civil-rights organization, filed in federal court in San Antonio, the group alleged that U.S. citizens, particularly Latinos, are being targeted as part of a "witch hunt."
Despite the missteps, some statewide Republican leaders have remained supportive of the secretary of state's advisory.
Although non-citizens have to prove they're in the country legally to obtain a Texas driver's license, the Republican Attorneys General Association said erroneously in a Wednesday news release that "Paxton recently announced thousands of registered illegal immigrants on voter rolls, many of which voted."
"Every single instance of illegal voting threatens democracy in our state and deprives individual Texans of their voice," Paxton said in a statement issued Friday.
Abbott, who has been Whitley's boss for many years, both in the governor's office and the attorney general's office, has not weighed in on the controversy.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment about mistakes in the list and critics' claims that Whitley's actions are a prelude to an unfair purge of voter rolls that will suppress minorities' participation in Texas elections.
On Monday, Wittman declined to say whether Abbott, who in the past has stressed his high concern that ineligible people are voting in Texas, would mention the topic in his state of the state speech next week. In the speech on Tuesday, the Republican governor is expected to declare several "emergency" items, which lets lawmakers vote more quickly on bills on those topics.
"We're not going to discuss any emergency items prior to the actual announcement," Wittman said.
County election officials, who generally are circumspect in discussing their state partners, couldn't completely stifle hints of frustration.
"Williamson County has also received NO written instructions after yesterday morning's call from the" secretary of state, Davis wrote in an email.
Denton County Elections Administrator Frank Phillips, when reached by phone, said: "I'm not doing anything until the state sends me an updated list removing those" voters, he said, referring to the ones who satisfied DPS they were citizens while obtaining driver's licenses.
In Collin County, local elections administrator Bruce Sherbet said he's seen markings indicating such citizens are on his county's list of 4,699 voters, received from Whitley's office Saturday. But he said the Collin office hasn't counted them.
"I don't have anything definitive," Sherbet said. "We just started."
'Where is the fire?'
Leaders with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus condemned the state's release of flawed data to local elections administrators, calling the information a "misleading" effort to try to suppress the votes of minorities.
"What is most callous is that these are not trivial rights that we're talking about," said Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat who is the chairman of the caucus. "This is a voting right. This is a cornerstone of our democracy."
The caucus formed a policy committee that will investigate the release of the "non-citizen voter" list and will monitor suspicions that the secretary of state coordinated with outside conservative grassroots groups on the release of the data. The committee will be led by Austin Democrat Eddie Rodriguez and will include Dallas Democrat Victoria Neave and Fort Worth Democrat Ramon Romero.
Rodriguez said he would ask Whitley to meet with the committee. Officials said they had also asked Whitley's office to preserve written communications between his office and Paxton's office as well as "outside groups" that are pertinent to this issue.
"There's a lot of mistakes here and we want to be able to look at that," he said.
Austin Democrat Celia Israel called the release of flawed data a "sham" and questioned the motives of the state officials who released the data.
"Where is the fire? Where is this coming from? I can only point to a historic election. Why the new processes and procedure? Why now?" she said.
Anchia said legislators were still trying to glean more information but that if officials had participated in a coordinated effort to fool Texans into believing large numbers of non-citizens voted "then people are going to have to answer for violation of protocols and of rules potentially.
"If we have to ask people to step down, we will," he said.
Staff writers James Barragán and Robert T. Garrett reported from Austin, and Julieta Chiquillo reported from Dallas.
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