SAN ANTONIO (Nexstar) — The battle over a state investigation into tens of thousands of registered voters and their citizenship status will head to federal court on Tuesday.
An affected voter, alongside voting advocacy and Latino groups, has filed suit against the state, claiming the actions taken by the Secretary of State’s office was a botched attempt by the state government to purge citizens from the voter rolls. The Secretary of State, David Whitley, and Attorney General Ken Paxton are named as the defendants.
The state, represented by a team from Paxton’s office, urged U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to dismiss the suit, arguing the investigation was required by law and is part of routine voter roll maintenance.
“As with other list-maintenance activities, this is an iterative process involving collaboration between the State and counties to assist counties in fulfilling their investigative role,” state lawyers wrote in court documents.
“Defendants are not responsible for canceling any voter’s registration for non-citizenship,” they wrote, arguing that responsibility falls upon county officials.
Though multiple civil rights groups have filed suit in this situation, Tuesday’s hearing stems from the lawsuit filed by the national and Texas chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. They argue the actions of Whitley and his team were intentionally discriminatory.
“The voter purge challenged, in this case, is a creation of the Secretary of State, not of Texas law,” they wrote in a court filing.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs called up Julie Hilberg Tuesday. Hilberg, who is part of this lawsuit, became a naturalized citizen in 2015 and voted in her first election in 2016.
The Atascosa County resident told the court the right to vote “means everything.” Once she heard the news about the advisory sent out by the Secretary of State’s office, she confirmed she was on the list after speaking with county elections officials.
“I actually felt like a criminal,” she said.
She said she hasn’t been able to confirm she is no longer on the list, though she’s verified her citizenship status.
At times, Hilberg became emotional on the stand when reflecting on her naturalization ceremony and on the rhetoric that’s since transpired on social media in response to the Secretary of State’s advisory. She read tweets in response to a Texas Tribune article about her lawsuit and explained she was nervous about re-entering the country after she leaves for her trip this Thursday.
“I’m afraid I’m going to be arrested at the airport, to be honest.”
County election administrators also testified on Tuesday. Kristen Spies, Blanco County tax accessor and voter registrar, said she hadn’t read the advisory in its entirety. Her chief deputy handles issues related to the voter registration list. Spies said she felt like the advisory was a directive to issue notices to the people on the list.
“We’ve just gone by the advisory,” Spies said.
Spies testified that out of the seven people on the list from the data issued from the Secretary of State’s office, four of them proved naturalization. Her staff was also verbally notified by the Secretary of State’s office about how one of the names on the list was there due to an error in coding by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Attorneys for the state repeatedly said counties weren’t required to send these notices and that the Secretary of State’s office explicitly pointed out in the advisory that the voter registrar is ultimately responsible over whether to send notices of examination.
“The arguments our office made in court demonstrate that this effort is not only legal, but it is necessary to protect the voting rights [sic] of all Texans,” Marc Rylander, director of communications for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said in an emailed statement. “The other side’s arguments ably demonstrate this entire lawsuit is nothing more than an exercise in politics. We continue to look forward to defending the voting rights of all Texans by assuring that everyone on the voter rolls in Texas is eligible to vote.”
Both parties will be back in court Wednesday morning.
How we got here
The Secretary of State’s office issued an advisory to elections administrators and voter registrars, including 95,000 names compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety, of people Whitley’s office claimed were non-citizens on the voter rolls. The advisory indicated some of those people voted in Texas elections.
As county officials cross-checked the names, some discovered thousands of citizens. Whitley’s office later indicated the data from DPS was ultimately inaccurate but was the best-known information at the time.
The Secretary of State’s office confirmed last month the list of names was delivered to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office for possible prosecution of any “illegal activity in connection with an election.”
Civil rights groups argue the state leaders in question aimed to intimidate and scare people from voting and registering.
Amid the array of lawsuits, Whitley needs a two-thirds confirmation in the Senate to become the permanent Secretary of State. He was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in December after Rolando Pablos announced his resignation.
Reporter Wes Rapaport live-tweeted from court. Follow the tweets below to view the thread.
We’re in the federal courthouse in San Antonio– for a hearing on one of the “voter purge” lawsuits filed by @TXLULAC & @LULAC against @TXsecofstate and @TXAG. Will try to tweet as much as I can. #txlege— Wes Rapaport (@wesrap) February 19, 2019