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There’s Good Reason to Question Texas’ Voter Fraud Claims

Friday’s claim of thousands of non-citizen voters is likely false. Here’s why.

Here we go again.

On Friday, Texas’ secret­ary of state declared that 95,000 non-citizens were on the state’s voter regis­tra­tion lists – and sugges­ted that 58,000 of them had cast ballots in at least one elec­tion. Two days later, Pres­id­ent Trump falsely tweeted: “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.” Noth­ing could be further from the truth.

This latest (and likely erro­neous) claim from Texas is part of a larger pattern of vote suppress­ors making outland­ish claims of voter fraud – only to have them thor­oughly and exhaust­ively debunked. It would be funny if such claims weren’t being used to deprive eligible citizens of their right to vote.

First, let’s exam­ine what exactly Texas Secret­ary of State David Whit­ley did to come up with his exag­ger­ated numbers. He has yet to provide much more than a breath­less state­ment to the press, but we do know he compiled his list of supposed non-citizens by compar­ing driver’s license applic­a­tion records against the state’s voter regis­tra­tion data­base. We’ve seen this game before. Here’s why it does­n’t pass the smell test:

  1. It is very likely that many if not most of these people became natur­al­ized citizens since the last time they renewed their driver’s license.
  1. Large-scale data­base match­ing has been proven to be notori­ously unre­li­able.
  1. Similar claims made by states in the past—in­clud­ing Texas—have been debunked.

Point one: the data Whit­ley used only shows if someone wasn’t a citizen the last time they renewed their driver’s license. But Texans only have to renew their licenses every six years. And since 55,000 Texans take the oath of citizen­ship every year, it stands to reason that many of these phantom non-citizen voters are now citizens. In fact, accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, there were 348,552 Texans natur­al­ized in the last six years. So even if we assume that all of the matches made by the Secret­ary of State are accur­ate, it is likely that many if not all of the 95,000 people iden­ti­fied have since been natur­al­ized.

Point two: large-scale data­base compar­is­ons are often inac­cur­ate. When compar­ing records from data­bases as large as these—there are 16 million registered voters in Texas—­past exper­i­ence suggests a signi­fic­ant like­li­hood of false posit­ive matches. Secret­ary of State Whit­ley’s own guid­ance to county offi­cials even acknow­ledges as much: he instruc­ted county regis­trars to consider the matches between the driver’s license data­base and the voter regis­tra­tion data­base to be “WEAK” matches (capit­al­iz­a­tion his).

In the run-up to the 2012 elec­tion, Texas elec­tion offi­cials used similar “weak” matches to claim that 80,000 people on the voter rolls were dead. Just as they’ve been instruc­ted to do this time around, elec­tion offi­cials were told to send notices to these voters requir­ing a response within 30 days – or else they’d be deleted from the voter rolls. As a result, the state repeatedly flagged living, eligible voters for removal, a process that dispro­por­tion­ately impacted people of color. After subsequent litig­a­tion and settle­ment, elec­tion offi­cials were barred from using the fail­ure to reply to these notices as a reason for removal.

And point three: Texas is not alone in this pattern of bold claims of voter fraud that are later debunked. In fact, nearly every instance of such claims is thor­oughly disproven.

In 2012, Flor­ida offi­cials conduc­ted a similar weak match with driver’s license records that indic­ated that as many as 180,000 non-citizens were on the state’s rolls. As in Texas, that number made for some splashy head­lines, but after account­ing for the fact that people may have become citizens after renew­ing their licenses, the number was whittled down to 2,600 cases. Even that turned out to be a drastic over­state­ment, as in the end just 85 voters were iden­ti­fied as non-citizens and removed from the rolls.

That same year, the then-director of South Caro­lin­a’s DMV used a similar “weak-match” method to claim ineligible indi­vidu­als voted in previ­ous elec­tions. He claimed that 950 dead people had voted since they died. After a review of the records in ques­tion by South Caro­lina offi­cials, it was determ­ined that no one had cast a ballot from the grave – or had used a dead person’s iden­tity to vote.

After the 2016 elec­tion, a weak-match system iden­ti­fied 94,610 New Hamp­shire voters that were supposedly registered in another state. Pres­id­ent Trump claimed he lost the state because “thou­sands” of people came into the state by bus to vote against him. A follow-up review by the New Hamp­shire secret­ary of state ruled out all but 142 of those matches as possibly legit­im­ate cases of double-voting, and only referred 51 of those cases to the state’s attor­ney general for further invest­ig­a­tion.

We have seen simil­arly bold but false claims later disproven in New Mexico and Color­ado. And Geor­gi­a’s recent move to place thou­sands of voters on “pending” status because of matches using a driver’s license data­base is currently the subject of ongo­ing litig­a­tion. But the fact is that study after study has shown that there is no evid­ence of wide­spread non-citizen voting or any other type of in-person voter fraud in the United States.

Of course, Pres­id­ent Trump has a penchant for making and ampli­fy­ing such false claims. He famously inven­ted millions of votes cast by ineligible voters to explain why he lost the popu­lar vote in the 2016. He then created a commis­sion dedic­ated to invest­ig­at­ing this non-exist­ent prob­lem, which ulti­mately imploded after states pushed back against intrus­ive attempts to inspect voter inform­a­tion and after the commis­sion was ulti­mately unable to find any evid­ence of wide­spread voter fraud. Even Trump’s own Repub­lican colleagues refute his base­less claims.

With all of this history in mind, these kinds of alarm­ist state­ments and actions are partic­u­larly offens­ive. But Secret­ary of State Whit­ley’s actions will also likely have imme­di­ate consequences for real voters.

Texas has a history of using faulty claims of fraud to justify oner­ous voter ID laws. In 2011, Texas passed the coun­try’s strict­est voter ID law, suggest­ing it was neces­sary to prevent supposedly rampant voter fraud. After the Bren­nan Center and others sued to prevent the imple­ment­a­tion of that law (and won), it became clear that the state had virtu­ally no evid­ence of voter imper­son­a­tion at the polls. In ruling on the case, the court noted that in the ten years preced­ing the law’s passage, though there were 20 million votes cast in the state, only two instances of in-person voter imper­son­a­tion were prosec­uted to convic­tion.

Further, the secret­ary of state has now advised local elec­tion offi­cials to send supposed non-citizens a notice requir­ing them to prove their citizen­ship within 30 days. If they fail to meet the dead­line, they can be removed from the voter rolls. This means that there may be thou­sands of recently natur­al­ized citizens purged from Texas’s voter rolls simply because they do not notice the mailer or they do not respond in time. As in previ­ous cases, this sort of inap­pro­pri­ate voter purge is likely to have a much more signi­fic­ant impact on people of color, partic­u­larly Lati­nos, who make up a signi­fic­ant portion of natur­al­ized citizens in Texas.

Just six years ago, before the Supreme Court gutted core provi­sions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required certain juris­dic­tions to seek federal govern­ment approval in changes of voting proced­ures, Texas prob­ably would have been preven­ted from these kinds of shenanigans. But now it will be up to voting rights advoc­ates to hold Texas account­able, expend­ing time and energy to debunk false claims that are ulti­mately used to rob eligible citizens of their right to vote.

(Image: Drew Anthony Smith/Stringer)