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Texas’ desperate search for fraudulent voters

March 9, 2019

Sometimes numbers don’t speak for themselves. That was the case in the attempt by Republican state leaders to show that massive voter fraud exists in Texas.

Sometimes numbers don’t speak for themselves. That was the case in the attempt by Republican state leaders to show massive voter fraud exists in Texas.

In late January, acting secretary of state David Whitley sent lists of almost 100,000 registered voters suspected of being noncitizens to county elections offices, including 58,000 who had cast ballots in Texas elections. He asked the local election administrators to request that voters on the list prove their citizenship within 30 days or have their registrations cancelled.

The Texas attorney general immediately tweeted a “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” that “approx. 95,000 individuals identified by the DPS as non-U.S. citizens have a matching registration record in TX.” President Trump with his own tweet: “The numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong Voter ID!”

The next day, county elections officials began spotting huge errors. As many as 20,000 were quickly verified as naturalized citizens and counties were reporting errors daily thereafter. Naturalized citizens and voter advocacy groups filed three lawsuits against Whitley for conspiring with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to violate the constitutional rights of naturalized citizens by baselessly questioning their right to vote.

A month after the lists were mailed, state director of elections Keith Ingram testified in federal district Judge Fred Biery’s San Antonio court that more than 25,000 names should not have been on the list because they were citizens.

The judge called the search for illegal voters “a mess,” declaring “there is no widespread voter fraud.” Last week Biery put a temporary halt to the secretary of state’s bungled attempt to remove thousands of people from the voter rolls suspected of being noncitizens, describing it as having to “ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

One has to ask, what have the efforts to prosecute voter fraud in Texas over the past decade produced?

The Texas Attorney General’s office was unwilling to provide a list of cases of election fraud or answer questions about the voter list, citing an ongoing investigation. However, I searched a database of adjudicated cases for every type of election fraud in Texas compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington D.C. think tank. While its website notes that the database “is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list” of voter fraud convictions, you can be sure that they attempted to be as thorough as possible in their search for adjudications.

With these caveats in mind, I decided to use the database of 1,177 “confirmed cases” in order to explore the relative frequency of different types of fraud cases in Texas, to examine the types of charges and the characteristics of those charged. There were 73 persons identified as adjudicated in election fraud cases in Texas during the 13-year period of the database, from 2005 to 2018. Analysis of names on the list of cases reveals that Hispanics and women are over-represented. Of the total, 74 percent had Spanish surnames and 66 percent were women. These disparities should concern us and deserve further study.

Here are some lessons learned from an examination of past voter fraud violations:

Absentee Voting Fraud

Almost half of the cases involved the improper use of absentee ballots, where voter fraud occurs most often. The rules for handling, transporting and mailing absentee ballots are very specific and very elaborate in Texas. While there were a couple of cases of forging and filling out absentee ballots for others, most were violations involving possessing, collecting, transporting and assisting in the submission of absentee ballots. Many of those violations might have been avoided with more training of election officers and education of voters on the handling and mailing of absentee ballots.

Ineligible Felons

The Texas Election Code states that a person finally convicted of a felony is not eligible to register to vote until successfully completing the punishment phase — including incarceration, parole, supervision and period of probation. It’s possible many of these were honest efforts to vote by ex-felons who did not understand the eligibility rules. More education is needed here also. Better yet, Texas should follow the step taken by Florida voters in November and remove the prohibition against voting by convicted felons.

False Registration

Cases of false registration “involve voting under fraudulent voter registrations that either use a phony name and a real or fake address or claim residence in a particular jurisdiction where the registered voter does not actually live and is not entitled to vote.” There were eight such cases in Texas over the 13-year period.

The “Motor Voter Law” was passed by Congress in 1993 with the aim of expanding access to the ballot. As it was implemented in Texas, anyone applying for a driver’s license at a Department of Public Safety office has the option of also registering to vote, as long as they also declare citizenship.

In 2015, the Motor Voter law was expanded first by Oregon and then in ten other states to automatic voter registration unless the individual opts out. The switch to automatic voter registration in Texas would require a single database for both functions, resolving the inconsistencies between two separate lists in two separate bureaus. It would also minimize the types of fraud since maintenance of registration would be centralized and more uniform.

Impersonation Fraud at the Polls

In 2011 Texas passed the strictest voter ID law in the country, requiring one of seven government-issued photo IDs to vote. Several federal court rulings declared it either unconstitutional or in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The battle ended on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court with voter ID relaxed somewhat to allow alternative forms of identification.

Only six of the 73 cases in the database involved voter impersonation fraud at the polls, although it is unclear whether all of these might have been prevented by a photo ID law. This comports with a nationwide study by law professor Justin Levitt over the period of 2000 to 2014 that found only 31 voter impersonation cases out of one billion votes cast.

If voter impersonation is so rare, the strict photo ID law in Texas serve only to disadvantage minorities and young people who are less likely to have state-issued photo IDs.

Noncitizen voters

Only four of the 73 cases involved voting by non-citizens. Texas ought to learn from other states that have wasted time and resources in the search for noncitizen voters on the registration rolls. In 2012 Florida came up with a list of 180,000 suspected noncitizens and found only 85 could be removed from the rolls. North Carolina in 2014 found 10,000 on their registration rolls that they thought were non-citizens and only 11 of them voted that fall.

The paucity of cases of voter fraud found by the Heritage researchers is itself instructive: Only 73 cases out of more than 100 million votes cast by Texas voters in local, legislative and statewide election contests during the 13-year period.

Taxpayer dollars would be better spent on modernizing the voter registration system instead of targeting noncitizens in a showboat attempt to grab headlines to drum up baseless fearmongering about undocumented immigrants.

Robert Brischetto, Ph.D., was executive director of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Research Institute and a sociology professor at Trinity University. He can be reached at rrbrischetto@gmail.com.

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