Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information on a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott repudiated President Barack Obama’s recent criticisms of the state’s voter laws on Monday, arguing that Texas must remain vigilant against voter fraud.
“What I find is that leaders of the other party are against efforts to crack down on voter fraud,” Abbott said. “The fact is that voter fraud is rampant. In Texas, unlike some other states and unlike some other leaders, we are committed to cracking down on voter fraud.”
In an interview with the Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith on Friday, Obama said that leaders in Texas are partly to blame for low voter turnout in the state.
“The folks who are governing the good state of Texas aren't interested in having more people participate,” Obama said.
Obama has been previously critical of Voter ID laws like the one Texas passed in 2011. A federal judge ruled last year that the Texas law had a “discriminatory effect” by restricting access to the polls for black and Hispanic Texans. Last week the full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals announced that it would hear arguments over whether the law violates the Voting Rights Act. The law requires most citizens to show one of a handful of forms of allowable photo identification before their election ballots can be counted.
One specific policy that Obama suggested the state should adopt to increase turnout would be online voter registration. But Abbott appeared uninterested in the proposal when asked about it at a press conference following the announcement that California-based Pegasus Foods is building a new, 80,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Rockwall, Texas.
“We don’t want to open the system up to methodologies or ways of voting that would promote or allow voter fraud,” Abbott said. “To the contrary to the president’s comment, the fact is — despite our voter registration laws — we had the highest level of turnout than ever before in the primary that occurred just a few weeks before he made that comment.”
While Texas did witness historic voter turnout in the 2016 primaries, the state still had one of the lowest voting-age participation rates of the states that have held primaries so far at 21.5 percent, besting only Louisiana as of last week. But Abbott did not attribute those figures to the state’s election laws, instead pointing to the lack of faith in government among voters.
“Voters and citizens repeatedly say, ‘Why go vote if we’re going to have corrupt leaders in office?’” Abbott said. “So we need to root out and eliminate corrupt leaders and root out and eliminate corruption in the voting process, and that means greater ballot security, not less ballot security.”
Abbott noted that he personally prosecuted voter fraud cases “across the entire state of Texas” while he was the state's attorney general from 2002 to 2015.
Voter fraud remains by many accounts a rare phenomenon in Texas.
“You're more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas than to find any kind of voter fraud,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said last year, an assertion that PolitiFact found to be true.
As of last year, there had been a total of 85 election fraud prosecutions resolved in Texas, including 51 guilty or no contest pleas and 9 convictions, according to PolitiFact. Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers professor and author of the book The Myth of Voter Fraud, determined that four cases in Texas from 2000 to 2014 involved in-person voter fraud.
Shortly before the governor spoke on Monday, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit in San Antonio federal court challenging the state’s voter registration procedures. The complaint alleges that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal law by refusing to register eligible voters who submit changes to their driver’s license information with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Plaintiffs, who are eligible Texas voters, have been disenfranchised — just like the thousands of similarly situated voters who complained to election officials about these same problems when their ballots were not counted,” the complaint reads, arguing that this contradicts the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. “Texas voters will continue to be shut out of the democratic process unless and until Defendants reform their registration practices.”
According to the Texas Civil Rights Project, nearly 2,000 voters complained to the state between September 2013 and May 2015 after completing an online transaction with DPS and mistakenly believing that their voter registration records were updated too. The lawsuit was filed against Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos and DPS director Steven McCraw.