Emails: Guv Behind Push For Texas’ Shoddy Voter Purge List

Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, talks to reporters after meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, Friday, March 24, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott talks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017, after meeting with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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June 4, 2019 6:10 p.m.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) last year pushed to gather the data used to create a notoriously error-prone list of alleged non-citizens voters, internal government emails made public Tuesday revealed.

Abbott’s office requested that a Texas agency collect data used for the attempted voter roll purge just days after a tea party group held a press conference calling on him to do so, according to the agency’s emails.

The emails — which were posted by Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups involved in the lawsuits over the list — were communications between the Texas Department of Public Safety and the secretary of state’s office about the agencies’ work on the effort.

The emails show that as early as March 2018, the secretary of state’s office was seeking driver’s license data from DPS that they believed could be run against voter rolls to identify illegally registered non-citizens. That methodology, which Texas claimed showed some 100,00 non-citizens were on the voter rolls, ultimately led to thousands of false positives and duplicate records. Texas, in settling the lawsuits, retracted its claims and significantly narrowed its approach.

The governor is invoked twice in the emails released Tuesday.

On August 27, 2017, a DPS official told another DPS official that the “Governor is interested in getting this information as soon as possible.”

A little later that day, another DPS official described that that re-running the data was part of an “urgent request from the Governor’s Office.”

It’s unclear how involved the governor himself was in the request that DPS help create voter fraud list. His office did not respond to TPM’s inquiry, but issued a denial to another outlet.

Abbott went on to appoint as secretary of state his deputy chief of staff at the time of the email exchange, David Whitley. Whitley, who was appointed interim secretary of state in December, recently resigned because Texas Democrats blocked his confirmation over the botched purge effort.

But the state’s efforts to assemble the list predated Whitley’s appointment.

“We would like to be ready to go with this as soon as possible following the November 6 election,” Keith Ingram, director of elections in the secretary of state’s office, told a DPS official in an email on August 31.

The email referred to the National Voter Registration Act’s moratorium on voter purges within 90 days of an election. When Whitley announced the list in late January 2019, it came with the instruction that county officials send mailers to the those identified as non-citizens seeking that they confirm their citizenship status. If the individual didn’t respond to the mailer, they could then be removed from the polls, according to the process laid out in Whitley’s advisory.

The newly released emails suggest that DPS had raised some concerns about using its data being used to investigate voter registrations. In one email, a Texas DPS official describes a conversation she had recommending that the secretary of state’s office instead work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to “confirm” citizenship status.

The secretary of state official referenced in the email, Betsy Schonhoff, was the point person for the effort to create the list.

Though apparently DPS was on board assisting with the project by August 2018, its officials still didn’t feel comfortable answering a reporter’s questions about using DPS data to vet voter rolls for non-citizens. DPS received one such inquiry on August 30 and kicked it up to the secretary of state’s office, because it didn’t “know” what the secretary of state’s office had said about the topic.

The reporter’s inquiry was about about a message blasted out by a local tea party group. The group called on its members to telephone Governor Abbott’s office and demand that he use DPS data to verify the voters’ citizenship.

As the reporter noted to a DPS official, there were some “weird” arguments being made about the use of data — but it’s unclear whether the reporter was referring to arguments made by the secretary of state’s office or by the tea party group.

The tea party group’s message said that “Hundreds of Thousands Illegally Registered to Vote, But TX State Officials Slow Walk Answers & Action.” It claimed that an analysis of DPS data found 280,000 non-citizens on the voter rolls. The message also noted that the Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition held a press conference on August 16 calling on Abbott to start using DPS’ citizenship data to verify voters’ citizenship status. That press conference was less than two weeks before DPS received the message that Abbott was pushing for the agency to get him the citizenship information as soon as possible.

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