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Other Voices: Texas officials must answer for voter purge

A fumbled voter purge led by acting Secretary of State David Whitley left Texas officials publicly embarrassed and chastised in federal court. Yet their continued effort to stonewall a congressional subcommittee’s investigation suggests they have more to hide.

Texas voters deserve answers — including the extent of Gov. Greg Abbott’s involvement.

What we know so far is that it started with a list. The document — made up of about 95,000 names of alleged non-citizens registered to vote — was the ultimate find for Republican officials. Proof of the kind of widespread illegality that would justify the voting restrictions they had long advocated and imposed.

“VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted.

“I support prosecution where appropriate,” Abbott said.

“These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg … voter fraud is rampant,” was how President Donald Trump jumped in.

The problem was that the list was riddled with errors.

The Secretary of State’s Office used Department of Public Safety data to identify non-citizens, then cross checked those names to people registered to vote. The problem is clear even if you ignore that every year about 50,000 people in Texas become naturalized citizens. As Whitley himself acknowledged in a letter sent to the Legislature, “more time should have been devoted to additional communication with the counties and DPS to further eliminate anyone from our original list who is, in fact, eligible to vote.”

It was far more than simply rushed. A federal judge found the state’s effort “ham-handed” and said it exemplified “the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us.” That suit was settled when Texas agreed to end the purge and pay $450,000 in legal fees. But questions remain that must be answered.

Emails released last week show DPS officials believed they were under intense pressure from the governor to produce the data that was used in the attempted purge, but in a statement, Abbott denied any involvement. So, which is it?

Those emails cast a new light on Abbott’s coddling of Whitley, a longtime aide and protege of the governor’s who was offered the softest of landings after the Senate refused to confirm his nomination as secretary of state. Abbott hired him back in a vaguely defined role as deputy director at a salary of $205,000.

Beyond the question of the governor’s participation, other questions remain about any links between Texas’ attempted voter purge and voting restrictions taking place in other Republican-controlled states.

These are questions the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is trying to answer. The committee launched an investigation into the voter purge effort April 1. So far, it has received limited cooperation from Paxton and Whitley, with Paxton refusing to produce requested documents, including any emails with Abbott and Trump administration officials. He claims Congress lacks authority to compel a state to produce its records.

Congress’ authority to investigate any matter over which it has legislative authority has long been established. University of Houston political science professor Brandon + says protecting Americans’ right to vote is clearly one of those matters.

“Especially if it was done to disenfranchise citizens; if there is a systematic approach it should be examined,” Rottinghaus said.

Whether it was an overzealous attempt to protect the integrity of the election process, a naked political ploy, or both, Texans should know the truth. State officials should cooperate with any investigation. If not, it’s up to Congress to force them to do so.

Today's Bible verse

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

Revelation 3:17

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