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Rights Groups Sue Texas Officials Over 'Unlawful Purge of the Voting Rolls'

"Not one single eligible Texan should lose the right to vote because state officials have decided to pursue a radical anti-voter agenda"

Voters line up outside the polling place at Fire Station Number 2 on Election Day November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas.

Voters line up outside the polling place at Fire Station Number 2 on Election Day November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas.  (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A group of civil rights organizations on Monday filed suit against Texas voting officials for attempting "an unlawful purge of the voting rolls"—an effort they say violates the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Texas is stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, undermining the public's faith in our democracy, and preparing to purge thousands of eligible citizens from the rolls," said Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies at Demos. "We're asking the federal court to stop the state from undermining the fundamental right to vote."

In their suit (pdf) filed in the District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Galveston, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law take aim at Texas Secretary of State David Whitley's recent "purge list."

By design, Whitely targets naturalized citizens, and "Preventing naturalized citizens in Texas from voting thereby suppresses the votes of minority populations," the suit argues. 

In that clearly problematic list sent to county officials in January, Whitely flagged 95,000 Texas voters as possible non-U.S. citizens registered to vote, though just days later his office reduced the number on the list by roughly 20,000. President Donald Trump and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, were helping to ramp up fears about the supposed voter fraud.   

Voting officials had used data from the Department of Public Safety (DPS), but people who were not citizens at the time of getting driver licenses or state IDs may later have become naturalized citizens, and DPS would not have that updated data. More than 1.6 million naturalized citizens call Texas home, it should be noted.

The suit argues:

Defendant Whitley declined to include safeguards to ensure such naturalized citizens would not erroneously be  included on his Purge List  solely because they formerly were not U.S. citizens.

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The Secretary of  State's determined insistence on following through with the purge, despite knowledge that it will disproportionately burden naturalized citizens, demonstrates his intention to suppress their fundamental right to vote. 

Moreover,

As set forth in the Advisory, Defendant Whitley does not intend for the purge to be a one-time event.  Rather, using the flawed methodology that uniquely targets  naturalized citizens, he intends to provide Purge Lists to counties on a monthly basis, thus regularly subjecting naturalized citizens to voter registration requirements to which native-born citizens are not subject, and exposing them to a continuing and ongoing threat of being purged from the voter rolls.

Even if a flagged person is a valid voter, they could purged from rolls if they fail to provide within 30 days the require documentation, which means, for naturalized citizens, either a U.S. passport, which the majority of Texas don't have,  or a certificate of naturalization. There are no other options or remedies.

Importantly, the suit adds, the purge list "follows a long line of discriminatory tactics to suppress access to the vote in Texas."

"The Secretary of State is relying on information he knows to be out-of-date and unreliable. He is intentionally targeting new Americans and people of color in order to decrease minority voter participation, in flagrant violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act," Bains asserted.

"Our lawsuit," added Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, "seeks to put the brakes on this voter suppression by rescinding the flawed advisory. Not one single eligible Texan should lose the right to vote because state officials have decided to pursue a radical anti-voter agenda."

The rights groups' suit marks the third to hit the effort, with one already filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and another by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

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