Officials in Galveston County, Texas, mistakenly sent letters earlier this week to 58 registered voters asking them to prove their citizenship based on incorrect data provided to them by the state, the county’s top election official said in an interview.
The 58 voters were among 163 people the county sent letters to Monday and Tuesday asking them to prove their U.S. citizenship. In total, the state sent the county the names of 837 residents suspected of being noncitizens on the voter rolls. The Gulf Coast county, for now, is holding off on contacting the remaining 674 people.
State officials contacted Galveston County again on Tuesday and said the citizenship of some of the people on their initial list had actually been verified. That meant Galveston county officials had to send 58 voters a second letter telling them to disregard the first letter demanding proof.
The episode in Galveston County underscores the confusion across Texas this week since Secretary of State David Whitley (R) sent an advisory to counties telling them to investigate about 95,000 suspected noncitizens on the voter rolls. Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) quickly seized on the number as evidence of voter fraud in the state. But by Tuesday, the state was contacting officials and letting them know there were errors in the data. The list of suspected noncitizens contained people whose citizenship had already been validated. The state officials also told the counties there may be naturalized citizens, who are eligible to vote, on that list.
At least 20,000 people were wrongly placed on the list, according to The Dallas Morning News. In one county, every single person on the list was actually a citizen. More than a dozen civil rights groups are protesting the advisory, saying it amounts to an effort to intimidate minorities and naturalized citizens from voting. The timing is also suspect, given a surge in Latino voter turnout in the 2018 election.
Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor and the county’s election administrator, said her office had heard back from several residents who received a notice and that none seemed to be upset.
But Beth Stevens, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said some legitimate voters wouldn’t respond to the request for proof of citizenship for a wide range of reasons.
“Some people won’t know that this notice is all that important, so they may not even read it. Two, someone who is a properly registered voter might not have those three pieces of documentation just on them,” she said. The letter specified the proof, in the form of a certified birth certificate, passport or citizenship papers, was required within 30 days or voter registration would be canceled.
State Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas) said the statewide effort to question the citizenship of voters appears meant as intimidation.
“The integrity of our system and the state’s voter rolls is being questioned, it looks like, for the sake of voter intimidation. There will be a chilling effect for individuals who were naturalized and many of whom after their naturalization ceremonies registered to vote. It’s in a way falsely accusing or intimidating individuals from their right to vote,” she said in an interview.
Stevens said those in Galveston who got two notices with conflicting information within a matter of days would rightly be confused.
“You’ve almost like doubled the problem by sending a second letter. Because then it’s like, ‘Well, am I going to get a third letter that says actually the first letter was right?’”
Johnson said state law required her to investigate the names the secretary of state sent her. While other counties have held off on sending letters for proof of citizenship while they review the list, Johnson said the only way her office could determine whether someone was a U.S. citizen was to send them a letter asking them to provide their documentation. She said her office wouldn’t send any more notices until it got responses from the people it had already mailed notices to and verified how many of them were citizens. If a high percentage were proved to be citizens, she said, she would ask the secretary of state’s office to check its data.
Stevens disputed that Johnson was required to send out the notices. She said the original advisory from the secretary of state’s office made it clear counties could choose to investigate but could also take no action if they believed the voter was eligible. The errors in the list, Stevens said, suggested that it shouldn’t be seen as sufficient evidence to investigate the ineligibility of a voter.
Johnson, the Galveston County election administrator, said Paxton had politicized a routine effort to make sure the state’s voter rolls were accurate.
“I know Ken Paxton ― It’s like, OK, your campaign happened in November, you’re good to go another four years, calm down,” she said. “They made this very common task political by the fact that they blasted it out in the press…. I’m not going to get sucked into the Ken Paxton voter fraud alert. I’m just going to do my job.”