Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton dropped what appeared to be a bombshell Friday afternoon, announcing that the state claims to have identified 95,000 noncitizens who nevertheless have matching voter registration records, and of these, some 58,000 have voted at some point since 1996.
To drive home the supposedly alarming nature of this news, Paxton tweeted in all caps, “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” as an intro to the announcement. The Texas secretary of state also issued a statement explaining what steps would be taken to verify whether these people are U.S. citizens.
President Trump jumped on the story Sunday and tweeted that “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!”
The problem is that there’s no evidence that any of these 95,000 registered voters aren’t currently citizens, or that even one of the 58,000 who voted in Texas over the past 22 years did so illegally. In fact, this is much more likely a case of faulty government data than voter fraud.
The reason for this is rather mundane. In Texas, noncitizens with a work visa or a green card can apply for a state driver’s license or ID card, but they must show the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) documentation of their legal status at the time of their application. Of course, even if they get a driver’s license or an ID card, they’re still not allowed to vote, or even to register to vote.
But when these people become naturalized citizens, as many of them do, they are under no obligation to then contact DPS and update their citizenship status. They are also free to register to vote without the added burden of letting DPS know they’ve become citizens.
As state Sen. Jose Rodriguez told the Houston Chronicle, “a legal permanent resident with a driver’s license who becomes a citizen is not required to go back to DPS and change their status. So just because someone is listed as a non-citizen in DPS records, that does not mean they still are.”
So anyone who used a green card to get a driver’s license or state ID, but went on to become a naturalized citizen and then registered to vote, would turn up as a noncitizen in a search like this. That’s an important point, considering that the records in question stretch back to 1996 and since then, millions of noncitizen Texas residents have become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Every year, tens of thousands of noncitizens living in Texas become naturalized. In 2017, the total was 50,552. The year before that, it was nearly 64,000, and before that, more than 65,000. Nationwide, more than 707,000 people became U.S. citizens in 2017. All these people are now free to register to vote and cast ballots, and in general they are not required to notify state government agencies of their updated status.
Given all this, the fact that 58,000 people DPS has listed as noncitizens voted at some point since 1996 is not conclusive proof of rampant voter fraud. If anything, it’s proof that DPS has inaccurate records and should try to update them.
Texas GOP Has a Pandering Problem
All of this is not to say that there isn’t any voter fraud in Texas. The Lone Star State has a rich history of voter fraud, the most infamous case being Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1948 U.S. Senate election, which he won by 87 votes out of a million after a box of 202 ballots was somehow discovered six days after polls closed. Just about every conceivable kind of voter fraud has been tried in Texas over the years, and even today people are convicted of voter fraud every year in the state, as they are in other states.
But widespread, systematic voter fraud of the kind that Trump and Paxton allege doesn’t seem to be a problem. At the very least, there isn’t compelling evidence for it, which there needs to be, in part because Texas also has a history of botching purges of its voter rolls.
In 2012, the state removed 80,000 people from voter rolls who according to state records were dead. They weren’t, and resented being told otherwise by the state government. They sued and the case was settled with an order to dissolve the purge order.
So you’d think GOP leaders in Texas would be cautious about relying on state voter data before making sweeping claims about voter fraud. But no. Just hours after Paxton’s announcement, Republicans were stoking fears of rampant voter fraud by citing the numbers in a fundraising email. “We knew it was happening and now we have proof,” read one email blast, according to news reports.
This eagerness to gin up fears of voter fraud is of course rather Trumpian. The president has made much of voter fraud as a major problem, although he disbanded his own commission on voter fraud last year when it failed to find much evidence of this. Why are Republicans leaders in Texas so eager to latch onto this sort of thing?
Sadly, GOP leaders in the Lone Star State have a habit of finding incendiary issues at the outset of the state legislative session, which in Texas only runs for about five months every other year. In such a short session, time is limited, and for some reason Texas Republicans have been content to use that limited time to debate side-issues and wage culture wars instead of just passing a budget and going home like most Texans wish they would.
In 2017, the issue was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s “bathroom bill,” which would have prohibited men and women from using bathrooms of the opposite sex. In 2015, the issue was gun control—specifically, the merits of “open carry” versus “constitutional carry” gun legislation, as if Texans were clamoring en masse for the ability to wearing Glocks openly.
What Ails Texas Ails the Entire Country
This time around, it looks like combating “voter fraud” will be the issue that sucks all the air out of the room. Never mind that there’s no hard evidence for widespread voter fraud in Texas. Never mind that more than 8 million Texans voted in November, so even if every single one of those 58,000 people voted illegally, it would amount to less than 1 percent of all votes that were cast.
Never mind all that. Republican leaders in Texas seem to think this is an important issue. Why? Because they know it’s what their base wants to hear. In the same way, Trump talks about the border like it’s a war zone—not because it is, but because it’s what his base wants to hear.
As always, what ails Texas also ails the rest country. Instead of allowing their elected leaders to serve the whims of an easily misled base, rank and file Republicans need to let the GOP establishment know that they don’t want to see a circus in Austin this session: no hand-waving about voter fraud or any other hot-button issue. Just pass a budget and go home.
If they do that, and Texas Republicans take heed, maybe lawmakers in Washington, D.C., will follow suit. After all, for good or ill, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.