Analysis: Texas election officials serve up a plate with lots of red meat, few veggies

The latest "voter fraud" news from the Texas secretary of state's office raised a lot of eyebrows — not because it was solid, but because it wasn't.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley is telling local election officials that some people on the state's list of potential noncitizen voters do not belong there.

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It seems like the people most likely to scream about “fake news” would be better than this: The state of Texas put out a misleading alert last week that convinced a lot of people — including the big fella in the White House — that thousands of noncitizens have been voting in Texas elections.

That would be bad, if only it were true.

It’s not.

And now, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley — a Gov. Greg Abbott appointee who serves as the state’s top election official — is telling local election officials that some of the roughly 95,000 people on its list do not belong there.

That was evident on the first day, to careful readers. The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura broke it all down, explaining and exposing the problems with the initial announcement from Whitley. He said his office had flagged people on the voter rolls who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with documentation that they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards. That group included 58,000 people who voted in one or more elections between 1996 and 2018.

To be fair to the SOS, his SOS to counties said that the matches of names on the two lists were “WEAK” — his caps, not ours — and needed further checking.

It doesn’t mean that those people were noncitizens when they voted during that 22-year period — just that they were noncitizens when they got their state IDs. Not everyone who is a citizen in Texas today was a citizen in Texas at every point during the last 22 years.

It doesn’t even mean those people voted; the “weak” match is an indication that a name on the voter rolls matched a name on the list of noncitizens with state IDs. A name is not a person; two people can have the same one. Making a strong match would be required to prove that a noncitizen was also an illegal voter.

In other words, the announcement made late Friday afternoon was unsubstantiated, unchecked and not ready for primetime in meaningful ways.

But it was good enough for politics.

Whitley sent his weak stuff to Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose first news release carried a headline loaded with political spin: “AG Paxton: Texas Secretary of State’s Office Discovers Nearly 95,000 People Identified by DPS as Non-U.S. Citizens are Registered to Vote in Texas.”

His campaign upped the ante Monday, reading Whitley’s evidence in the worst light (the boldface is Paxton’s): “The Texas Secretary of State’s office discovered approximately **95,000 individuals** identified by the Department of Public Safety as non-U.S. citizens have a matching voter registration record in Texas. And roughly 58,000 of those people have voted in one or more Texas elections.”

He also took a shot at reporters who noted the gaps in the evidence: “Already the media is trying to tell us this isn’t really what it is, and there’s nothing to see here.”

Most of the state’s biggest counties were still deciding early this week whether to send inquiries to county residents whose names are on the AG’s list; they were still reviewing it. And by Tuesday, Whitley’s office was telling those county voting officials that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists.

Whitley might be on to something here; it is entirely possible — some, like the attorney general, might even say likely — that a noncitizen was among the millions of people who voted in Texas since 1996. A small number of people have been prosecuted over that two-decade span for voting illegally.

But if you want to present compelling arguments, it’s best to get your act together, to wait until you’ve picked up the loose ends, until you’ve worked out the strongest and weakest parts.

Then you don’t lose the argument by not doing your homework before you started.

When it comes to Texas voter rolls, the state has a lot of homework still to do. And rolling out the possible worst-case conclusion — that 58,000 noncitizens have voted in state elections over the last 22 years — wasn’t very smart.

Clarify that: It wasn’t very smart if the aim was to make a point about the security of elections in Texas. It did serve a purpose, however, if the goal was to bolster the argument that swarms of people from south of the U.S. are coming into the country and stealing our money and our democracy.

If you’re worried about voting integrity, watch and wait until the experts get an answer to what’s going on with those lists.

But if you’re preoccupied with immigrants and walls and huddled masses yearning to vote in Texas elections, you’re on the right track: Worry your head off.