The newest political ad from a candidate seeking to unseat Galveston County’s longtime tax assessor-collector bears a striking image. A man with a tattooed face and tattooed bare chest, standing arms crossed.
The words accompanying the photo are meant to create fear about the man and what he represents: “Texans can thank Cheryl Johnson for having illegal immigrants vote in this November’s Election!”
The ad was paid for by Jackie Peden, a Republican running against Johnson in the primary race for Galveston County tax assessor-collector.
The man in the picture is not, in fact, a Galveston County voter. Nor was he, at the time of the photo, an undocumented person living in the United States. He is not a model hired to pose for the advertisement or a piece of stock photography, Peden said
The unnamed man is an MS-13 gang member who in 2012 was an inmate in a prison in El Salvador. The photograph, which was uncredited in the advertisement, was taken from a photo essay published in The Guardian, a British newspaper.
It’s one of the first pictures that appears under a Google Image search for “MS-13.” MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Peden said she approved of the advertisement that was sent to homes across Galveston County this week. It was meant to wake people up about the threat of undocumented people voting in the county, she said.
“It outlines that we don’t want non-citizens on our voter rolls,” Peden said. “That was the point. We have non-citizens on our voter rolls, and it’s scary.”
Peden said she believes the picture is an accurate representation of what undocumented people in Galveston County look like, and she thought it was possible that the man in the photograph was now, in fact, a Galveston County resident.
“He could be; I don’t know. I don’t have those facts,” Peden said.
On Friday, Johnson called Peden’s advertisement racist and discriminatory — as well as inaccurate about the way she handled a controversy around an attempted purge of voter rolls across Texas last year.
“It is despicable, it is vile, and it’s a lie,” Johnson said. “When I looked at this, I was offended because it makes it appear that every Hispanic male or somebody with tattoos is an illegal immigrant.”
In January 2019, the Texas Secretary of State’s office distributed a list of nearly 100,000 registered Texas voters to county-level election offices. The secretary’s office had flagged the names on the list for citizenship review, after comparing voter rolls to a list of names provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety of people who had said they weren’t citizens while getting a driver’s license or ID card.
Johnson’s office was among the voter registrars’ offices that moved quickly in response to the list, sending letters to local people on the list demanding they prove their citizenship or else be removed from the rolls and face potential criminal charges.
The process was stopped after civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, sued and claimed, correctly, that the review was flagging naturalized citizens who were legal voters and who should not have been questioned about their status.
State officials would later admit that nearly a quarter of the 100,000 names were citizens.
Peden’s ad blames Johnson, who was named in the civil rights lawsuit, for ruining the voter purge effort.
In the months that followed the controversy, much of the blame has been piled on the secretary of state’s office. Secretary of State David Whitley, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, resigned in May, after it became apparent that he would not be confirmed by the Texas Senate.
On Friday, Peden, whose campaign website pledges to clean up the county’s voter rolls on “day one” in office, said Johnson should have been more cautious about using the information supplied by the secretary of state’s office.
“Because of her lack of due diligence, she targeted the wrong ones,” Peden said. “I think it would be up to her to verify before you go sending out letters and making accusations.”
Peden said her plan if she was elected would be to create a task force to investigate undocumented people voting in the county.
For her part, Johnson defended her actions in responding to the list. The letters were part of the verification process, Johnson said. The problem was the state sent an inaccurate list.
She and other county officials agreed to stop using the DPS list to get out of the lawsuit, Johnson said.
“The counties were asked to stand down from sending any additional letters in order to be removed from the lawsuit,” Johnson said. “Knowing there was nothing we could do, we did not want our taxpayers to be obligated to pay for the suit, which really involved the state. We were simply doing our jobs.”
Johnson believes there are hundreds of undocumented people still on county voter rolls but said the settlement from the lawsuit prevents her from using the DPS-based list to continue to try to identify them.
Johnson has continued to urge the secretary of state’s office to take up the effort again and has forwarded the names of some people she suspects of being undocumented voters to state officials, she said.
As of Friday, there have been no verified cases of undocumented people voting in Galveston County.
Early voting in the primary election for the tax assessor-collector and other offices began Tuesday and continues through Friday. There are no Democrats running in the tax assessor-collector race.