Gov. Greg Abbott blames DPS for voter roll snafu. But the story behind the citizenship review is complicated.

A miscommunication and an ignored warning led to the questioning of thousands of citizens' voting rights.

Gov. Greg Abbott blamed Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw for the voter citizenship review mishap.
Gov. Greg Abbott blamed Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw for the voter citizenship review mishap.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./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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Amid the fallout surrounding his administration’s botched review of the voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott has picked a side.

Who’s to blame for the state’s mistaken challenge to the voting rights of thousands of Texans? The longtime head of the Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw.

During a radio interview last week, Abbott slammed McCraw’s department for not “adequately” communicating to the secretary of state that the data at the heart of the controversial voter review was “admittedly flawed.” And he specifically passed the blame onto McCraw for “faulty information” that “hamstrung” the state’s review efforts.

Then on Monday, Abbott referred to McCraw’s alleged mistakes as “unacceptable,” describing the review as a mishandled “law enforcement issue.”

It was a striking, two-punch rebuke of a high-ranking state official who has long backed Abbott’s priorities, particularly on security concerns at the Texas-Mexico border. But recent court testimony and documents obtained by The Texas Tribune paint a more complicated picture. In reality, the voter citizenship review was flawed in two major ways.

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For one, officials from the Texas secretary of state’s office based their review on data DPS had warned would not be up-to-date. In addition, miscommunication between state offices led state election officials to misinterpret the citizenship status of 25,000 Texans who had already proved to the state that they were citizens.

But Abbott has downplayed Secretary of State David Whitley’s role in the foul-up as Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide, faces a tough confirmation fight in the Senate that could result in him losing his job. That has left opponents of Whitley’s nomination questioning Abbott’s motivations.

“I think the governor is either misinformed or he’s trying to save his nominee despite what the facts are,” said Chad Dunn, one of the civil rights lawyers suing the state over the constitutionality of the review effort. “I don’t think there’s any evidence to support the governor’s comments.”

DPS warning

Whitley’s office has been under intense scrutiny for weeks for pushing a review officials knew would threaten the voter registrations of naturalized citizens. State employees worked for the better part of 2018 to match the state’s voter rolls with DPS data for individuals who had at some point told the department they were not citizens when they obtained a driver’s license or ID card.

The goal was to find noncitizens who were illegally voting. But the resulting list of almost 100,000 registered voters was fundamentally flawed because it did not account for individuals who had become naturalized citizens since getting an ID.

The first warnings that the driver’s license and ID data maintained by DPS was not reliable came almost a year ago, when DPS officials told secretary of state employees that the dataset might not include current citizenship information, according to testimony by Gayatri Vasan, a DPS official who testified at a hearing in one of the three federal lawsuits that have been filed against the state.

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On the witness stand in a federal courthouse in San Antonio last month, Vasan explained that she had helped wrangle the data the secretary used to compile its list of flagged voters and detailed how she had communicated with the secretary of state’s office to hammer out the specific data the elections office wanted. In the back-and-forth, DPS made clear to the secretary of state’s office in early 2018 that the data was limited in scope, Vasan said.

“My boss told them that DPS is not an authorizing agency to confirm citizenship. We do collect citizenship information at the time of the transaction, but that may not be current because when you come in for the driver's license, you get a driver's license for six years, right? We may not have the current citizenship information,” Vasan said during a Feb. 19 court hearing that stretched longer than six hours. “And my boss … suggested they should go directly to [the U.S. Department of Homeland Security] if they want current citizenship information.”’

A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment regarding the warning. But missing from Abbott’s efforts to cast blame on McCraw — who also did not respond to questions about the governor’s statements — is the fact that Abbott’s appointee Whitley moved forward with the review effort even though his staff knew that naturalized citizens could be impacted.

Federal District Judge Fred Biery pointed to that last week when he temporarily blocked the state from purging any voters as part of the citizenship review. He noted that the state’s effort to review the rolls was “inherently paved with flawed results” that resulted in the burdening of “perfectly legal naturalized Americans” who received “ham-handed and threatening” letters from the state asking them to prove their citizenship within 30 days to avoid being kicked off the rolls.

“No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment,” Biery wrote.

Miscommunication

Biery has blocked local election officials from demanding that voters included on the list prove that they are citizens. But even still, 25,000 of the almost 100,000 names have been cleared after state officials realized they shouldn’t have been put on the list in the first place.

DPS had reliable data on those voters' citizenship because those individuals had provided the department with some form of documentation, such as a naturalization certificate or a U.S. passport, to show they had become citizens since first obtaining an ID. But “miscommunication” between DPS and the secretary of state’s office led state election officials to disregard that field in the data based on the erroneous understanding that their citizenship was self-reported and unreliable, according to testimony from Keith Ingram, chief of the secretary of state’s elections division. The Tribune has reviewed emails between the two departments from 2018 that confirm Ingram’s account.

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“We have since met with DPS and learned that that's not the case, that they do, in fact, prove those things,” Ingram said.

Two weeks into the state’s review, McCraw was making the rounds with state lawmakers in hopes of explaining where things got off track with those voters. On his way into a Feb. 11 meeting in the Capitol with members of the Texas House, McCraw told the Tribune his department had included that citizenship flag in the data it sent to the secretary of state, chalking up the error to “confusion in how the data was interpreted” by “lower-level people acting in good faith.”

“I think it’s important to note that, unfortunately, it’s confusing to someone who is not an expert in the data and analytics and doesn’t understand what it is,” McCraw said at the time. “It can be easily confused and misconstrued. That’s all I can say.”

A Whitley spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the secretary of state agreed with Abbott that DPS was to blame. But DPS officials have since shed more light on the issue, explaining that questions from the secretary of state’s office about the DPS process led to confusion.

Speaking before the Senate Transportation Committee last week, DPS Deputy Director Skylor Hearn told lawmakers that secretary of state officials asked if the department verified an individual’s citizenship with the Department of Homeland Security, which it does not. DPS told them no.

“That created a confusion that we don’t verify citizenship, which we do,” Hearn said.

“Grasping at straws”

As the voter citizenship review has unraveled, Abbott has sought to recast the effort. Soon after it was announced in late January, he praised Whitley for helping uncover “illegal voter registration.” When errors in the data emerged days later, he then described it as a “work in progress” and argued that state leaders had been clear the list wasn’t a “hard-and-fast match.”

In court, state officials went on to blame local county workers for moving too quickly in sending letters demanding proof of citizenship to voters flagged by the state, even though local officials explained they had simply followed the steps laid out by the secretary of state’s office in an official election advisory.

On Monday, soon after Abbott doubled down on his defense of Whitley, the secretary of state’s office formally advised local election officials to “pause their efforts” and hold off on sending any more letters while the litigation continued.

It’s unclear whether Abbott’s turn on McCraw will help save Whitley in the Senate. Whitley's nomination passed out of the Senate Nominations Committee last week. But to be confirmed, he needs a two-thirds vote among the senators on the floor when his vote comes up. All 12 Democrats in the chamber have publicly come out against a confirmation vote.

For the lawyers representing the civil and voting rights groups suing the state, Abbott casting the blame on McCraw is “grasping at straws.”

“The first scapegoat the SOS found were the counties who they blamed for following their own advisory,” said André Segura, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “The new scapegoat appears to be DPS.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.