By Chuck Lindell
Texas Secretary of State David Whitley has agreed to halt an investigation into the citizenship status of registered voters in a settlement agreement that will end three lawsuits filed by civil rights groups and naturalized citizens.
Under the settlement announced Friday, Whitley will rescind a Jan. 25 advisory that questioned the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters but was determined to be based on flawed data that implicated a significant number of naturalized U.S. citizens who were legally eligible to vote.
Whitley also will tell county election officials to take no further action on checking the citizenship of voters identified as suspect by his agency. That work had been previously halted by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in response to the lawsuits.
In the future, the secretary of state's office will check citizenship using a process that is more limited in scope, as outlined in the settlement.
"After months of litigation, the state has finally agreed to do what we've demanded from the start -- a complete withdrawal of the flawed and discriminatory voter purge list, bringing this failed experiment in voter suppression to an end," said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, one of the groups that filed suit.
The state also agreed to pay $450,000 to the plaintiffs to cover legal costs and fees.
In addition, any voter who was notified that their citizenship status was in question based on the secretary of state's data will be sent a follow-up letter saying that they "are still registered to vote and that their voter registration status is no longer in question," the settlement agreement said.
Whitley made national news when he announced in January that data provided by the Department of Public Safety identified more than 95,000 registered voters who were apparently noncitizens, including 58,000 who had voted at least once in the previous 22 years.
He forwarded the list to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for investigation, and possible prosecution, of illegal registration and voting.
Counties, which are in charge of voter registration, also were sent lists of residents identified as suspect voters and ordered to verify their citizenship.
Whitley's advisory assured county officials that the list was carefully compiled to exclude eligible voters, adding that "we believe the data we are providing can be acted on in nearly all circumstances."
County officials, however, quickly discovered flaws in the data, and about 25,000 names on the list were eventually identified as naturalized citizens before the investigations were halted.
Faced with evidence of a flawed list, Biery issued an order in late February blocking Texas counties from sending letters demanding that voters provide proof within 30 days that they are U.S. citizens.
"Perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us," Biery wrote.
"No native-born Americans were subjected to such treatment," he added.
A major problem with the data was caused by outdated records provided by the DPS.
The DPS compiled a list of more than 2 million people who said they were noncitizens, but were in the country legally, when they applied for a driver's license or state identification card. Whitley's office compared those names with the state's voter roll to identify suspect voters.
A license or ID card, however, is typically valid for six years. Because there is no requirement to immediately inform the DPS of a change of citizenship status, the agency's list included people who had become naturalized citizens but had not yet renewed their license.
Under the settlement, the secretary of state's office will flag only those who registered to vote before applying for a driver's license as a legally present noncitizen.
The DPS also will provide daily updates of names of noncitizens who renew their license as a naturalized citizen.
The agreement also specifies that additional lawsuits can be filed if new problems are discovered.
"We'll be watching to see what happens, whether there are further glitches nobody has discovered to this point," Austin lawyer Renea Hicks said. "This (settlement) just ends this lawsuit."
(c)2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas