During the hearing at the Texas Capitol, Whitley told Senators on the Nominations Committee, “I’ve learned a lot over the last two weeks.”
The Secretary of State’s voter registration list contained the names of 95,000 people who DPS identified as non-citizens who were registered to vote, and that about 58,000 of them had voted.
The controversy began after the Secretary of State sent the list of names to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for criminal prosecution.
At the same time, Whitley’s office told county elections officials across Texas that the list may contain names that shouldn’t be on there and need to be verified.
One county elections official who didn’t want to be identified said his office routinely updates their voter rolls as required by federal and state law, and that normally, the work is done without any controversy.
But this year, the official said there were two differences: the Secretary of State sent the list to the Attorney General’s Office before the counties had a chance to verify the list of names and that this was the first time the Secretary of State compared voter registration lists with DPS files of those who were in the country legally but not citizens.
It turns out a number of the people on the list had since become citizens and eligible to vote.
State Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, asked Whitley if he would ask the Attorney General’s Office to delay investigating and prosecuting people on the list. “Would you be willing to ask the office of theAttorney General to not engage any such activity until such time the maintenance operation is complete?”
Whitley said, “I think that’s a reasonable request. I’m not sure it’s appropriate coming from my office because I don’t have any investigative authority.”
Watson replied, “You were the one who made the referral and blasted it all over the state.”
Since then, three lawsuits have been filed in federal court against the state, claiming the Secretary of State’s list was unconstitutional because it targeted naturalized citizens and voters of color.
During the hearing, Senator Royce West, D-Dallas asked Whitley how he defined voter suppression.
Whitley said, “What we are doing with the counties is ensuring that voter suppression does not take place.”
West asked, “Ok, so how do you define it?”
Whitley responded, “I’ve heard voter suppression used anecdotally as being discouraged from voting.”
Sen. West asked, “Do you believe that what you put out would discourage persons from voting?”
Whitley said, “No.”
After Whitley’s testimony, members of the public had their chance to tell lawmakers where they stand on his nomination.
Julieta Garibay’s name was on the list even though she became a citizen last year and eligible to vote.
“I felt frustrated, outraged, and in shock. Checks and balances should have been done before sending false alarms, sending bogus lists to county registrars and sending letters to voters. This is nothing but voter intimidation to people of color and naturalized citizens.”
She told lawmakers that as a result, Whitley should not be confirmed.
Domingo Garcia of Dallas, the National President of LULAC, the oldest Latino civil-rights organization, told lawmakers that Whitley should admit his errors. “Own up and say you know what, we made a mistake. We’re going to withdraw that order, that directive to the election officials and we’re going to do it right.”
His organization was one of those who sued the state.
Those who opposed Whitley outnumbered those who supported him.
Adam Cahn of Austin told lawmakers, “I think Secretary Whitley has demonstrated a willingness to take on tough issues and not back down.”
Matt Long of Fredericksburg said, “I trust the Governor and I trust his nominee and after hearing Secretary Whitley today in his testimony today, I’m even more convinced that his nomination is appropriate.”
Whitley came under fire within hours of his office issuing a news release about the potential voter fraud.
That was closely followed by news releases issued by the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas GOP.
Whitley told Senators that his office was following federal and state law, but that he realized the news release his office sent may have sparked the controversy.
“Looking back, if there’s anything I could change about how this process has worked, I would include more substantive data and information from our actual election advisory that provides for the actual process the counties are going to follow in the actual press release. 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 in the advisory,” said Whitley.
During a wide-ranging interview Wednesday at the Governor’s Mansion, Governor Greg Abbott, who nominated Whitley in December, defended him and his office.
The Governor continued to describe the list as a work in progress.
“This isn’t the first time this has happened. It happens constantly because every year there are registered voters who die and pass away and are no longer eligible and their names had to be removed from the rolls. There are people who become felons who have to be removed from the rolls and we know for a fact there are people who are in the country illegally and registered to vote who need to be removed from the rolls.”
But the Governor acknowledged the vocal complaints.
“Maybe we need to find better, smoother ways effectuating it so it doesn’t cause such a commotion. But I think we all agree on two key principles: No one wants anybody who is ineligible to vote to cast a vote and no one wants anybody who is eligible from being denied the ability to vote,” he said.
Members of the Senate Nominations Committee will meet next week to consider Whitley’s confirmation before it goes before the full Senate.