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:
- 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.
- Large-scale database matching has been proven to be notoriously unreliable.
- 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)