"This relationship is in tatters": How Texas' voter citizenship review frayed its relationship with local officials

A breakdown in communication has emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

Ballot-by-mail clerk Chaundra Grattan organized ballot packages at the Travis County Elections Division in Austin on May 19, 2014.
Ballot-by-mail clerk Chaundra Grattan organized ballot packages at the Travis County Elections Division in Austin on May 19, 2014.  Charlie Pearce for The Texas Tribune

Whether it’s a botched voter citizenship review, legal battles over how the state draws its political maps, or the efforts to remove barriers to casting ballots, voting rights issues are the source of constant debate in Texas. Read The Texas Tribune’s comprehensive coverage of voting rights issues and tell us if you’ve encountered problems while trying to vote in Texas.

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As the Texas secretary of state’s office rolled out its botched effort to review the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, Betsy Schonhoff was local election officials’ main point of contact.

Seven years into her post as the state’s voter registration manager, she was largely responsible for the training provided to county officials ahead of the review. Schonhoff and her team fielded calls from election officials across the state as they began to sift through their lists. And she was the person who reached out to many of them when her agency discovered that thousands of voters’ names had been mistakenly flagged.

But a week and half into the convoluted review efforts, Schonhoff — voter registrars’ main contact within the agency — disappeared.

County election officials who called the secretary of state’s office asking for her were informed she was not available. A county worker who traveled to Austin last week to meet with Schonhoff was told she was out that day.

By then, Schonhoff had been gone from the secretary of state’s office for several days. She abruptly resigned Feb. 6. But the county workers who relied on her experience overseeing the state’s voter rolls were kept in the dark.

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A spokesman for the secretary of state denied that county officials were misled, saying those who called in were “directed to appropriate staff.” But during a call to Schonhoff’s office a week after she tendered her resignation and completed an exit interview, The Texas Tribune was told, “Betsy’s not in.”

“It’s extremely odd, ” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s elections administrator, complaining at the time that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

The secretary of state’s office has since acknowledged that Schonhoff left. But the maelstrom surrounding her exit highlights the breakdown in communication and frustrations that have emerged between the state’s top election officials and county election offices since the citizenship review effort launched four weeks ago.

A rift in that relationship could prove perilous to the state’s election system, which depends almost completely on counties and the state working hand-in-hand. Counties are responsible for setting up polling locations and counting the votes while the secretary of state’s office works to ensure that electoral processes are followed correctly and uniformly.

State officials, including Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, have insisted that the voter citizenship check is nothing more than a routine, federally mandated and collaborative check that the voter rolls are up to date.

But many county officials are moving forward with extreme caution — if at all. Several have been sued — and one was accused by a state lawyer of violating the law — for following the directions the secretary of state's office sent them to review the rolls. Others have expressed a loss of confidence in the data and process Whitley’s office is championing.

For some, the secretary of state’s muddled efforts to review the rolls have damaged the working relationship between the state and locals, in part because of the partisan nature the assignment has taken on.

“I heard it over and over again that this relationship is in tatters,” said Bruce Elfant, who oversees the voter rolls in Travis County. “We have to have a close relationship to make elections work.”

"Counties feel let down"

Sharing responsibilities for maintaining the state’s voter rolls, the secretary of state’s office and county election officials regularly review the list of 15.8 million people and counting who are registered to vote in Texas. List maintenance is largely a routine process and typically occurs without incident.

But the state’s latest stab at reviewing the rolls has felt anything but ordinary, according to county officials across the state.

It started with Whitley’s announcement of the new list maintenance process on Jan. 25. For the better part of last year, the secretary of state’s office had been quietly working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to match the state’s voter rolls with data kept on Texans who indicated they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

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His office had offered trainings for local county officials ahead of sharing the data, and the secretary of state’s office advised them earlier in the day that the data would soon be released. But they had no warning about the press release Whitley sent out announcing the review, nor were they aware that Whitley had provided data of the approximately 95,000 voters who were initially flagged to the state’s top prosecutors even before county officials had access to it.

Oldham said he was tipped off about the announcement by a former local candidate who had seen a draft of the press release the attorney general’s office sent soon after Whitley’s announcement landed.

But others were caught flat-footed.

“Most of the time, it’s just very routine. [The state and counties] work together very well, and then every once in a while something like this comes out,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “They characterized it as list maintenance, but it didn't look or feel anything like ordinary list maintenance.”

The confusion continued as it became clear that the data the secretary of state’s office had sent the counties was deeply flawed. On Jan. 29, Schonhoff and her colleagues began quietly informing counties they had erroneously flagged voters who had already proved their citizenship. The state’s list of voters fell by at least 25,000 when local officials in 16 of the 30 counties with the most registered voters scrubbed their lists of those individuals, according to a Tribune survey of those counties.

Almost two weeks later, Keith Ingram, a Whitley deputy who oversees the state’s elections division, admitted to lawmakers that the secretary of state’s office knew there was a “significant possibility” its list included naturalized citizens since Texans aren’t required to update the state about changes in citizenship status between renewing their driver’s license or ID.

As of last Friday, local officials in some of those 16 counties had removed almost another 3,000 names from their lists because they were able to identify those individuals as naturalized citizens or, to a lesser extent, duplicates.

Looking for updates on their progress, Whitley began personally calling election administrators and voter registrars two weeks into the review. But during those calls, some county officials made clear that their questions about the state’s process had solidified into real concerns about the reliability of the data.

“This is something brand new that we’re really trying to work through for the very first time,” Bruce Sherbet, Collin County’s election administrator, recalled telling Whitley. “I think my concern would be how … it was created and how far it went back and how reliable the data is on that list.”

In a letter to lawmakers last week, Whitley admitted “additional refining of the data” was necessary to “ensure a more accurate and efficient list maintenance process.” But four weeks into the review, county officials say they haven’t received a clear explanation about the state’s methodology and how it can be cleaned up, and many of them are proceeding carefully to avoid affecting naturalized citizens whom they now fear make up a large number of the names on their lists.

And in defending against three federal lawsuits over allegations the process is unconstitutional and discriminatory, top state lawyers and Ingram have instead sought to blame local election officials for moving too quickly on data the secretary of state’s office repeatedly said was “actionable.”

At least nine counties are now caught up in the litigation after they sent out letters asking for proof of citizenship to voters on their lists — and the state’s lawyers are suggesting the county officials were the ones who broke the law.

“We were given discretion without a lot of direction, which I think in this instance could be kind of dangerous and harmful,” said Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis, who spoke in his capacity as the head of the Texas Association of Election Administrators. “Counties feel let down. … We were with them and we were following them and we were ready for this process up until they actually delivered the data.”

It wasn’t until a week after the voter roll review was announced that Ingram emailed county officials to explicitly say the data provided by the state was "the starting point.” In defending the voter roll review, Whitley and his team have repeatedly reasoned that local officials have access to information that could help prove the citizenship status of the flagged voters. They’ve pointed out that counties are supposed to hold onto voters’ registration applications, and sometimes those are annotated with information that indicates they were filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

With litigation barreling forward, some counties have said their review efforts have stalled altogether. But county officials have continued to emphasize that they have few other resources with which to cull their lists for naturalized citizens.

“That’s the problem,” said Oldham, the Fort Bend County official. “We don’t know how to identify naturalized citizens.”

And Davis pushed back on the secretary of state’s reasoning that counties are in the best position to determine citizenship status.

“Speaking for this county and for other counties that are a part of the [association’s] membership, we disagree,” said Davis. “We don’t think we’re in the best position to access a comprehensive list of naturalized citizens.”

"Déjà vu"

The file containing the names of flagged voters received in late January by Bexar County felt familiar to its elections administrator, Jacque Callanen. So she left it untouched for days.

“My normal policy when we get a directive like that is to take a deep breath and slow down,” Callenen said in the days after the state’s announcement. “[My staff] have not touched that file.”

Her cautiousness was rooted in the state’s past flubs in reviewing the rolls. In 2012, state officials asked counties to verify whether some of the voters on their lists were dead. But counties ended up sending “potential deceased” notices to Texans who were still alive, and the fallout ended up in federal court.

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At the time, the Harris County voter registrar received hundreds of calls from elderly voters who received notices they were being removed from the rolls because they were presumed dead.

“There’s a lot of déjà vu through that situation we encountered before,” said Ray, the Harris County special assistant attorney.

This year, his county’s original citizenship checklist shrunk by about 60 percent when the voters the state mistakenly flagged were removed.

Harris County is holding off on reviewing its list in light of the ongoing litigation, but officials have continued to find naturalized citizens on the list — in their own office. A couple of employees at the tax assessor’s office, which also oversees the voter rolls, are on the list, as is a county attorney’s wife. All of them are U.S. citizens.

Although some county officials say they’ve lost faith in the data top Republican officials have defended, a spokesman said the secretary of state has sought to have direct communication with officials “to maintain our office’s strong working relationship with them.”

“Our office understands that the sheer volume of data creates unique challenges for some county voter registrars, and the Secretary’s conversations with them have been focused on receiving honest and direct feedback so that we can work collaboratively to improve any of the processes in which our office and county election officials share responsibilities,” Sam Taylor, the spokesman, said in an email last Friday.

Moving forward, the agency plans to provide counties with monthly files that include people who indicated to DPS they were not citizens within the past month, “further minimizing the impact on any individuals who may have become naturalized in the intervening period,” Taylor said.

But local officials are already raising concerns about the credibility of those lists, given the unexplained errors.

Unless they work to clarify what went wrong, “the monthly lists are going to be treated with the same credibility this list was,” said Elfant, the Travis County official.