Gov. Greg Abbott names new secretary of state months after botched voter roll review

Ruth Ruggero Hughs replaces David Whitley, who failed to receive Senate confirmation after his office questioned the voter eligibility of thousands of naturalized citizens.

Ruth Ruggero Hughs

* Correction appended.

After losing his last chief election officer over a botched review of the state’s voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed a new secretary of state: Ruth Ruggero Hughs.

Ruggero Hughs is moving from the Texas Workforce Commission, which she has chaired since August 2018. She joins the secretary of state’s office nearly three months after Democratic senators blocked the confirmation of her predecessor, David Whitley, who questioned the voter registration of thousands of naturalized citizens.

Whitley resigned on May 27, lacking enough votes in the Texas Senate to keep the job after he oversaw an effort to scour the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens. The review instead threatened the voting rights of tens of thousands of voters of color, landed the state in federal court and prompted a congressional inquiry into voting rights violations.

The review, through which counties were advised to verify the citizenship status of supposed noncitizens, was eventually scrapped to end the litigation. By then, it was discovered that naturalized citizens have been swept up in review because of faulty data the state used.

By waiting to retire until the last day of the legislative session, Whitley allowed Abbott to pick his replacement without needing a confirmation vote from the Texas Senate, which will be unable to vet his new pick until lawmakers return to the Capitol in January 2021.

The Texas Constitution states that the governor shall “without delay” make another appointment to fill a vacancy in the secretary of state’s office. Abbott’s office did not previously respond to questions about why the post remained vacant much longer than when he replaced previous secretaries of state.

“I am proud to appoint Ruth as Secretary of State and I am confident that her experience at the Texas Workforce Commission will translate into success in this new role,” Abbott said in a statement on Monday. “Under Ruth’s leadership, we will continue to build the Texas brand on the international stage and uphold the integrity of our elections.”

Ruggero Hughs is likely to face a challenge in repairing the secretary of state’s relationship with the hundreds of local officials it depends on to run elections. Some county officials have said they’re still waiting for an explanation from the secretary of state’s office on how they got the review so wrong.

Several county election officials were sued amid the voter rolls debacle for following the directions the secretary of state’s office sent them to review the rolls. Those instructions included the option to send letters demanding that voters prove their citizenship within 30 days to avoid being kicked off the voter rolls, which several counties immediately sent out and several naturalized citizens received. State lawyers placed much of the blame for any errors in the review on local officials, arguing they had behaved “contrary to state law” when they acted on the state’s advisory.

Whitley, meanwhile, was almost immediately rehired by the governor’s office on a six-figure salary.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly included a photo that was not Ruth Ruggero Hughs.