Dozens of Galveston County residents will soon receive official letters demanding they prove their citizenship or be removed from the voter rolls and have their names referred to the district attorney’s office for possible criminal investigation.
The county voter registrar’s office on Monday sent letters to more than 80 registered voters the Texas Secretary of State’s office late last week flagged as potential non-citizens, County Tax-Assessor Collector Cheryl Johnson said.
The tax office is also the voter registrar.
The letters warn people they must prove their citizenship to remain on the county’s voter rolls, Johnson said.
Johnson’s office mailed the letters after the Secretary of State’s office last week flagged tens of thousands of registered voters as potential non-citizens — including more than 800 from Galveston County.
“We did what we always do when we receive information about a non-citizen,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We send a letter to verify citizenship.”
But even as Johnson’s office was preparing to mail more letters to voters on Tuesday, the project was halted when the secretary of state’s office notified election offices statewide that its initial list might have been inaccurate.
The letters that were sent out carry serious possible ramifications for the people who receive them.
People who receive the letter have 30 days to respond to the registrar’s office and prove their citizenship.
If they don’t respond, their voter registration will be suspended and their names will be forwarded to the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, which could investigate the person for potential voter fraud, Johnson said.
After a name is sent to the district attorney’s office, it is up to prosecutors to determine whether any fraud occurred, she said.
The purpose of the letters is to clarify people’s voter status, Johnson said.
“We’re not going after people,” Johnson said. “We’re just trying to reach out to people. If they don’t respond, I can’t help them with that.”
Even before Johnson’s office began sending letters, a notion the state was attempting to purge voters rolls alarmed civil right groups.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights group, on Tuesday sued the state to stop reviews of the names flagged by the secretary of state’s office, saying the project was meant to intimidate Hispanic voters who are naturalized citizens.
People who do respond to the letter will have to prove they are U.S. citizens and Texas residents, which voters are not required to do when they initially register to vote, Johnson said.
People who are legal, registered voters shouldn’t be alarmed about receiving the letters, Johnson said.
“You would think to people who are new citizens, this would be important,” Johnson said.
The steps the office is taking are typical for when registered voters are flagged as potential non-citizens, Johnson said.
It is the same process the county uses when people summoned for jury duty tell district court officials they are not citizens, Johnson said.
Although the state’s list flagged more than 800 names in Galveston County, Johnson said her office stopped sending letters Tuesday, after the secretary of state’s office called the county and said some of the flagged names should not have been on its list. At least 100 names were no longer considered suspicious, Johnson said.
The voter registrars office would review the new information, and send a second letter to people who should not have been asked to prove their citizenship. People who do not receive a second letter would still be required to respond to the first letter, she said.
Galveston County was apparently the only large Texas county that began asking for citizenship information immediately after the secretary of state’s alert, according to the Texas Tribune.
The secretary of state’s office announced Friday it had a list of 95,000 voter registrations the Texas Department of Public Safety had linked to people who are not U.S. citizens.
The secretary of state said 58,000 of those people had voted in one or more state election, raising the specter of wide-spread voter fraud.
Shortly after that notice, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released a statement through his campaign committee promising to prosecute non-citizens who voted illegally. The email was headlined “Voter Fraud Alert.”
“Now we have 95,000 reasons to not back down,” Paxton wrote. “We will enforce the law and bring criminals to justice to protect the integrity of Texas elections.”
However, voting rights groups argue there are simple reasons other than fraud for people to appear on the secretary of state’s list.
The secretary of state’s office generated its list by comparing information collected from people who obtained drivers licenses and state ID cards to voter registrations.
Non-citizens might legally obtain a valid ID card or driver’s license with a green card or work visa, later become citizens, register to vote and end up on the state’s list of suspicious voters, for example, voter rights groups said.
There’s no requirement for people who become citizens to update the Texas Department of Public Safety about changes in their citizenship, the groups said.
Tens of thousands of people become naturalized citizens in Texas each year, and the flagged names include people who voted in elections between 1996 and 2018, increasing the likelihood that naturalized citizens were among the flagged names, the groups said.
Texas officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have named combating voter fraud a top priority, but even by the state’s count voter fraud prosecutions in Texas are extremely rare.
Between 2005 and 2017, the state prosecuted 97 people for voter fraud violations, according to Paxton’s office. Last year, amid a publicized ramp up of fraud investigations, the attorney general’s office prosecuted 33 people for election fraud, according to Paxton’s office
By contrast, about 8.4 million people voted in November’s mid-term election.