AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas Secretary of State David Whitley faced intense questioning from the Senate Nominations Committee over the “non-citizen” voter list released by his office two weeks ago. Thursday’s public hearing is a step required before a two-thirds confirmation vote of the full Senate for Whitley to keep his appointment by Gov. Greg Abbott.
“I am deeply honored, and especially after the last two weeks, humbled to be appointed by the Governor to succeed the 111 outstanding men and women who have served in this position,” Whitley told lawmakers.
Late last month, the Secretary of State’s office sent out a press release saying it discovered approximately 95,000 individuals were identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as non-citizens with a matching voter registration record in the state. It stated it found around 58,000 of those people voted in one or more Texas elections over the past 22 years. A few days after, several counties learned thousands of names on the list shouldn’t have been there.
Whitley’s since been named in several lawsuits, with some plaintiffs asking the courts to declare his advisory as unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who serves as vice chair of the Senate Nominations Committee, pressed Whitley for just under an hour on the Secretary of State’s process in gathering the data and why the office decided to send the names over to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“Secretary, are you willing to admit as you sit here today that there were any mistakes in sending out that list of 95,000 people?” Watson asked.
“Senator, what I would say to you today, is that when we received the data from DPS, we were confident that it was their best data to determine who in their database were non-citizens and we compared that to the TEAM (Texas Election Administration Management) database to see who those folks were registered to vote and that’s where we came up with that topline,” Whitley replied.
“So you’re not willing to say that any mistakes were made by your office in releasing those 95,000?” Watson asked.
“I will readily level with you that we can always improve the process, but the data is what the data is and we were confident that that was the best data we could get from DPS,” Whitley said.
Whitley repeatedly told lawmakers that gathering this data was part of a “list maintenance activity,” a process that began in March 2018.
“One of the most important parts about this activity is that it’s collaborative and I’m absolutely, as I said before, if adjustments need to be made on how DPS is pulling their data or analyzing it, or how our office is analyzing our data or how we’re communicating with the counties, I’m absolutely committed to it so that these lists are as accurate as possible,” he said.
Watson asked why Whitley sent the names to the Attorney General’s office without further verification of the data and pointed out how Paxton’s campaign account sent an email with the words "voter fraud alert.” Gov. Abbott also thanked Attorney General Paxton and the Secretary of State on Twitter for “uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration.”
“I want to be very careful, Senator, to not comment or interpret the words that others have said about what my office has done and I want to make sure that it’s clear the Attorney General’s office has investigative and prosecutorial authority and we do not,” Whitley said. “But I’m not going to venture a guess as to reasoning behind anything on social media.”
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, asked Whitley for recommendations over improving the process on how the database works to produce these names.
"Are there improvements to be made in this case? I think there are,” Whitley said. “I’m committed to doing so, whether that’s working with the counties continuing to act as a conduit or working with DPS.”
The Secretary of State’s office held 10 trainings with counties and has fielded recurring questions on how to process the data.
“So you cautioned the counties, the 200 that attended your trainings, the 10 trainings, that there may be mistakes on the data that they were going to receive, the names they were going to receive, and that there was a duty for them to also look very closely at that before they were going to send out notices of examination?” Kolkhorst asked.
“Yes,” Whitley said.
Other senators who weren't on the committee also had a chance to ask questions.
"You're familiar with the concept of voter suppression?" Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked.
"Anecdotally, I've heard voter suppression talked about," Whitley said.
"Do you believe the wording of your press statement, that it could intimate people not to vote?" West asked.
"I have understood, Senator, that that has been said about the press release and I think that you know, looking back, if there's anything I could change about how this process has worked, that I would include substantive data and information about our actual election advisory that provides for the actual process that the counties are going to follow in the actual press release as opposed to just including an advisory, because I think a lot of misconceptions could have been cleared up on the front end if they were in the actual press release and not simply the advisory," Whitley said.
Gov. Abbott told KXAN in an interview ahead of the hearing he continues to have confidence in Whitley.
"There's one thing we can all agree on. We don't want anybody who's ineligible to vote to be able to vote. At the same time we don't want anybody who is eligible to vote being denied the ability to vote," Abbott said.
Whitley’s appointment will have to be approved by the Senate Nominations Committee before consideration by the full Senate. Dates for those votes have not been set.