Since retiring after a 34-year career as a middle school counselor, 62-year-old Brownsville resident Mary Lopez has taken a number of part-time jobs to supplement her state pension. For the past four election cycles, she’s worked in Cameron County’s Department of Elections and Voter Registration, answering phones, helping register voters, and performing other clerical duties. Lopez enjoys getting a behind-the-scenes look at the democratic process.
In September, she was examining a state-supplied list of possible noncitizen voters when she noticed the name of her 84-year-old mother, Mary Gomez. Lopez was shocked. Her mother is an American citizen who votes in nearly every election, Lopez says. She took her concerns to Cameron County elections administrator Remi Garza, who was preparing to send out “challenge” letters to 61 registered voters in the county, asking them to prove their citizenship.
Garza was following new guidance from the Texas Secretary of State on culling ineligible voters from the rolls. On September 9, the Secretary’s office announced a mandatory “revised process for identifying and removing non-United States citizens.” Since then, local election administrators across Texas have mailed out 11,737 challenge letters to registered voters.
“Please provide proof of U.S. Citizenship within thirty (30) days from the date of this letter,” each notice reads. “If we do not receive a response from you within thirty (30) days, your voter registration will be canceled.” According to the Secretary of State, 2,327 voter registrations have been canceled so far—the vast majority, 88 percent, because the voter failed to respond to the letter within thirty days. The letter clarifies that voters who are struck from the rolls can still vote on Election Day if they bring proof of citizenship to the polling place.
Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State, told Texas Monthly that the office identifies noncitizen voters by comparing lists of registered voters with Department of Public Safety records—a method championed by conservative activists, despite its track record of producing faulty results. (Only citizens and lawful residents such as green card holders can receive driver’s licenses and Texas Identification Cards.) Texans who registered to vote, then later indicated to DPS that they were noncitizens—in some cases mistakenly—are placed on a list of potentially ineligible voters. Those lists are then sent to county election administrators, who have been charged with verifying citizenship in these cases. If the administrators can’t verify a voter’s eligibility, they must send out the challenge letter to the address on file. If no proof of citizenship is received within thirty days, the voter is automatically culled from the voter roll.
“These were people who had registered to vote, and subsequently showed up at the Department of Public Safety and self-identified as non-U.S. citizens,” Secretary of State John Scott told Texas Monthly. Scott was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in October and is conducting an audit of the 2020 presidential election to “restore confidence” in state elections. “If there were errors out there, we can sure try to get with the different participants and figure that out.”
Cameron County officials were not certain why Mary Gomez’s eligibility had been questioned. Taylor, the spokesperson for the Secretary of State, did not dispute her citizenship. He said the error could be the result of there being two people named Mary Gomez who were born on the same date and share the same last four digits in their Social Security numbers. Gomez’s story, he said, shows the system working: “[F]lagged individuals have the opportunity to confirm their U.S. citizenship to remain on the rolls, which is exactly what happened in this case.”
Voting rights activists say the state’s procedures for identifying noncitizen voters are vulnerable to mistakes: DPS records can be spotty, and sometimes citizens check the wrong boxes when applying for state ID. Texas Monthly spoke to a second Cameron County resident who said her elderly mother, a Mexican-born naturalized citizen, received a challenge letter dated November 15. After presenting Cameron County with proof of her mother’s citizenship, the woman—who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted by Texas officials—was able to keep her mother on the voting rolls. But the experience left her angry. “It was infuriating,” she said, breaking into tears during a recent phone call. “It was so undignified.”
Voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in Texas; the attorney general received fewer than 200 complaints between 2015 to 2020, and ended up prosecuting 55 voters, out of 17 million who are registered. But Texas officials have been hyping the supposed threat of noncitizen voters for years. In 2018, then–Secretary of State David Whitley compiled a list of nearly 100,000 registered voters whose citizenship was supposedly in question—only to find that at least a quarter of them were in fact naturalized citizens. Many had applied for driver’s licenses before receiving their citizenship and were improperly flagged as noncitizens based on the old DPS data, a situation the newest voter roll removal process was supposed to prevent. When civil rights groups and more than a dozen voters filed suit after their eligibility was challenged, the state was forced to cancel the purge and agree to make reforms to its voting list maintenance system. Whitley resigned in 2019.
The terms of the fourteen-page legal settlement that ended the purge were incorporated into Senate Bill 1, the election legislation signed by Abbott in September that called for regular voter roll auditing. Two of the civil rights groups that signed off on the settlement—the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)—told Texas Monthly they believe the state is violating the agreement by continuing to send challenge letters to lawfully registered voters. “I believe Texas is targeting naturalized U.S. citizens,” said Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation. “About half of those are Hispanic, and the other half are mostly other people of color, predominantly Asian American. As we alleged in the 2019 lawsuit, this is a surgical strike against voters of color.”
MALDEF is considering suing the state for violating the settlement, Perales said. She’s filed an open records request for the names of the nearly 12,000 Texans on the state’s list of potential noncitizen voters. “There are two possible explanations here: incompetence or malice,” Perales said. “Given that this is the second time we are facing the same situation, where Texas is targeting legitimately registered voters for purging, I’m going with the malice explanation.” The Secretary of State’s office told Texas Monthly it is seeking an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton about whether such records are subject to an open records request.
In the meantime, voters who receive challenge letters have been forced to present documents proving their citizenship to local election officials. Mary Lopez gave her mother’s passport to Garza, the Cameron County election administrator, who, after verifying her citizenship, rescinded the challenge letter. “She was just happy to get her mother’s name off the list,” Garza told Texas Monthly.
Garza said he receives an updated electronic list of potential noncitizens from the Secretary of State each week. His office tries to first verify the voters’ citizenship using its own records. If it can’t establish citizenship, Texas election law forces it to send out a challenge letter. Since September, Garza has sent out 246 letters—almost all of them to voters with Hispanic surnames.
“It was a difficult decision to send those letters, because we were literally challenging someone’s registration,” Garza said. “There was ultimately the possibility of canceling them out without a legitimate reason. I and my fellow colleagues hesitate to interfere with someone’s right to vote—if we can help it.”