In a move that would be a major defeat for Governor Greg Abbott and could have implications for the tone of the Legislative session, all twelve Democratic senators have indicated they will vote against approving David Whitley to become secretary of state. Whitley, whose job includes being the state’s chief elections administrator, has been mired in controversy since sending out an election advisory on January 25 warning county elections administrators about potential non-citizens illegally being on voter rolls.
Although he has been acting as secretary of state since Abbott appointed him in December, Whitley’s job still requires confirmation by two-thirds of the 31 state senators, meaning at least two Democratic votes are needed for confirmation. If Democrats hold firm in their opposition, that would be enough to derail the confirmation. The Senate Democratic Caucus had decided as a group not to reveal its intent as it related to Whitley’s nomination, hoping that prolonging it would give courts enough time to determine how culpable the governor’s office and the Texas attorney general’s office were in the release of this election advisory. But local media began questioning senators about their intent, and one by one the senators began revealing they opposed making Whitley the permanent secretary of state. On Friday, the twelfth of twelve Democratic senators declared his opposition.
At least three lawsuits have been filed in federal court in response to Whitley’s action. If Whitley withdraws his nomination, the fear is that the lawsuits may become moot and the courts will not be able to determine if Abbott’s office or Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office had a hand in getting the list released and the manner in which it was released.
Whitley sent a news release late on the same Friday he sent his election advisory. In the release, he warned that as many as 95,000 names had appeared when comparing a Department of Public Safety database that contained the names of non-citizens to the voter rolls, and claimed that more than 58,000 of these people may have illegally voted. Within half an hour of Whitley’s news release, Paxton’s office sent out its own news release warning of the potential for massive voter fraud—a popular refrain by Abbott that has never been proven. Even President Trump joined the fray, sending out a tweet claiming massive voter fraud existed.
58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote. These 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! @foxandfriends
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2019
But when county voter registrars began going through the list, as they were required to do, they immediately began discovering a number of errors. Within days of the list’s release, at least 20,000 of the 95,000 names on the list were found to be there in error. Despite the problems, Whitley (and later Abbott) said the list was a work in progress, and the governor stood by his nominee.
Democrats have said this is simply another attempt by Republicans at voter suppression and voter intimidation—particularly aimed at minority voters. And when Whitley appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee two weeks ago, he was grilled by Democratic senators, led by Senator Kirk Watson of Austin. Throughout his testimony before the committee, Whitley declared that his office’s actions were nothing more than routine voting roll maintenance. When reporters, including at Texas Monthly, requested a copy of the list Whitley’s office released, they were denied; the secretary of state’s office says it is waiting on a ruling from the attorney general’s office on whether the list is exempt from open records because it is part of an ongoing criminal investigation.