For more than seven hours last Wednesday, until shortly before 2 a.m., Texas senators debated legislation that would make it significantly more difficult for Texans to vote, especially minorities and the poor. The seventeen-page bill would, among other things, dissuade voting by mail, limit the number of polling locations (including in areas where voters already typically have to wait in line for hours), ban drive-through voting, and allow partisan poll watchers to shoot video of voters as they cast their ballots.
Despite postponing their bedtime, the senators didn’t deliver much of a debate. Thanks in part to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s ever-shifting rules about what constitutes a majority in the upper chamber, the fate of Senate Bill 7 was never in doubt. The Republicans had the votes to send their proposal to the state House. All Democrats could do was complain and try to create a record of legislative intent to use against the Republicans in court. The back-and-forth took the form of an exchange of questions between Democrats and the bill’s author, Republican Bryan Hughes, the aw-shucks East Texan whose great gift seems to be the ability to smile through even the most rancorous proposals. Democrats had plenty of questions about mail-in ballots and drive-through voting, but they seemed to mostly ignore a small part of SB 7 that could have outsized consequences. That’s strange, because the provisions would create a potential voter-roll purge of naturalized citizens almost identical to one attempted two years ago.
In late 2018 and early 2019, Secretary of State David Whitley, who had recently been appointed by Governor Greg Abbott, directed local election administrators to challenge the citizenship status of nearly 100,000 registered voters. Whitley claimed that the voter rolls were filled with noncitizens and that at least 58,000 ineligible individuals had improperly voted in elections. But the explosive claim quickly fell apart. Whitley’s office had cross-indexed the voter registration rolls to driver’s license records, which indicate whether a driver is a noncitizen at the time he or she applies for a license. But before reviews of the data were halted, several county clerks found that at least 20,000 of the individuals on Whitley’s list had become naturalized citizens after last renewing their driver’s licenses. In other words, they were citizens with full voting rights. There were no reports of any voting by noncitizens in the driver’s license records. A lawsuit brought by the Texas Democratic Party brought an end to that purge, but not to Whitley’s troubles. He stepped down in May 2019 after he failed to find votes to get confirmed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
But Abbott never admitted defeat. As attorney general, he had aggressively tried to root out voter fraud, but had little to show for it other than some prosecutions of senior citizens, mostly Black and Hispanic, whom he accused of running afoul of arcane mail-ballot laws. After Whitley’s flop, Abbott welcomed his longtime aide back to the governor’s office and characterized the failed effort as a “a work in progress.”
The governor was right, and the progress he sought may have come in the form of Senate Bill 7. The legislation sets up almost an identical process to the one Whitley used: local election administrators would be required to question the citizenship status of Texans who told the state they weren’t citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses. Clerks would then mail letters to the targeted voters asking them to prove their citizenship with birth certificates or naturalization papers. Anyone who can’t prove his or her citizenship, or who doesn’t respond, would be removed from the voter rolls. The proposed legislation goes further than Whitley’s effort in at least one respect: election administrators face a fine of $100 a person for every noncitizen they might miss.
The genesis of the original purge appears to be a letter that 112 tea party activists and GOP grassroots leaders sent to Abbott in August 2018 demanding the secretary of state cross-index the voter roll to the driver’s license records. “Why the [secretary of state] has not been using this available information to ensure that we don’t have illegal aliens on our voter rolls is something we do not understand,” the letter stated.
The problem with that argument is that it is based on a fabrication. Thousands of “illegal aliens” do not cross the border to vote. In fact, there are no undocumented immigrants in the Department of Public Safety database because undocumented immigrants cannot obtain a driver’s license in Texas. Only citizens and legal residents can obtain one. Before the Texas DPS issues a license to a legal noncitizen, the person’s identification has to be verified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Many of the noncitizens become citizens with full voting rights after they get a license.
According to the Pew Research Center, Texas is home to 1.8 million immigrants who have become naturalized citizens and were eligible to vote in 2020. More than a million of them had lived in Texas for more than two decades. Remember, these are U.S. citizens, not unauthorized migrants who hired a coyote to guide them across the river. Texas is a gateway for legal immigrants, as well as illegal ones. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, nearly 213,000 immigrants became naturalized citizens in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Most were of Latin American or Asian origin.
What does it take for an immigrant to become a citizen? They typically must have resided in the United States as a legal permanent resident for at least five years, be able to read, write, and speak basic English, and be of good moral character. They also have to pass one of two citizenship tests. Pick one of the study guides and try it for yourself. It’s not easy. One of the top rights and responsibilities the federal government gives to these new citizens is the “right to vote in elections for public officials.” SB 7 would put one more hurdle in their path.
It is possible for noncitizens to end up on voter rolls, though there are vanishingly few cases of them actually voting. The federal Motor Voter law requires the Department of Public Safety to hand out voter registration cards when renewing licenses—regardless of whether someone is a citizen or a green-card holder. Some noncitizens then send the cards in either by mistake or in the belief that they will be citizens by the next election and want to be able to vote. Some small number of these do end up on the voter rolls, though there is no evidence of more than a handful of noncitizens going to the polls.
More than any other part of SB 7, the voter-purge provisions depend on the founding myth of modern-day voter suppression: widespread voter fraud. The idea that undocumented immigrants are stealing elections is what gave cause to the first major attack on voting rights in Texas of the last two decades: the state’s strict voter ID law, which tends to fall hardest on the poor, the elderly, and the state’s Black and Hispanic voters. Back in 2006, when he was attorney general, Greg Abbott declared in an op-ed, “Voter fraud has been an epidemic in Texas for years, but it hasn’t been treated like one. It’s time for that to change.” Between 2002 and 2012, Abbott’s office successfully prosecuted 57 cases of voter fraud. Our current attorney general, Ken Paxton, got convictions in 16 voter fraud cases last year after devoting 22,000 man-hours to investigations. All were from Harris County and involved incorrect addresses on voter registration forms. None resulted in jail time. It’s unclear if any of the violators were noncitizens.
Nonetheless, voter fraud has become an article of faith for many Republicans, fanned and fed by the party’s top leaders. On Tuesday, in a scathing news conference that featured impersonations of Austin mayor Steve Adler and broadsides at the media and Democrats, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said he was outraged at the criticism of SB 7.
“I take it personally,” he said. “You’re questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the eighteen Republicans who voted for this. When you suggest that we are trying to suppress the vote, you are, in essence, between the lines, calling us racists.”