News

Texas Defies Congressional Request For Information On Voter Roll Review

The U.S. House’s main investigative committee had asked for documents and communications from state officials involved in the review.

Vote signs outside early voting locations in Austin on Feb. 23, 2014.

Facing an investigation over the state’s botched efforts to screen its voter rolls for noncitizens, the Texas Attorney General’s Office is declining congressional leaders’ request for information about the review.

In a Thursday letter to top officials with the U.S. House’s main investigative committee, Jeffrey Mateer, the state’s first assistant attorney general, indicated the state was brushing off a request for documents and communications from the Texas secretary of state and attorney general because the committee lacks “oversight jurisdiction.”

Instead, Mateer wrote, the state will treat the congressional inquiry as a public information request under state law, which grants the Texas attorney general’s office broad control over what information can be withheld from the public.

“We do not interpret your letter to be a subpoena issued under applicable House Rules. Nor do we consider it a request for information under any applicable federal law,” Mateer said. “For the foregoing reasons, and because the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and its subcomittees lack oversight jurisdiction over constitutional officers of the State of Texas, we must interpret your request under Texas state law.”

The response comes two weeks after U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, informed state leaders that the committee had launched an investigation into the state’s review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens, through which officials flagged almost 100,000 registered voters as suspect voters.

The review has been mired in controversy and missteps since late January when it was revealed that lawmakers had mistakenly questioned the citizenship status of a quarter of the people on the list. As part of the review, some naturalized citizens on the state’s list began receiving letters demanding they prove their citizenship within 30 days to avoid being purged from the rolls.

Those efforts, which landed the state in federal court, have since been halted over a federal judge’s concerns that the review targeted naturalized citizens. But the state’s missteps continued when it mistakenly sent out additional names of voters to counties weeks later because of a technical error it blamed on a vendor.

“We are disturbed by reports that your office has taken steps to remove thousands of eligible American voters from the rolls in Texas and that you have referred many of these Americans for possible criminal prosecution for exercising their right to vote,” the congressmen wrote to top state officials in late March.

In response to the AG’s letter, a senior Democratic aide said the committee expected “full compliance” with its request.

“The right to vote is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and Congress is charged with protecting and defending the Constitution,” the aide said. “Congress is not limited by public records law, and Congress has an independent responsibility to investigate violations even when there may be separate litigation involving the same or similar matters.”

In announcing the Texas investigation — part of a broader probe of voting irregularities in multiple states — Cummings and Raskin cited their authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. The committee has the authority to issue subpoenas. Raskin chairs a subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties.

Civil and voting rights advocates, Democratic lawmakers and naturalized citizens swept up in the review hailed the congressional investigation as a necessary audit of state leaders’ decisions to conduct the review when they knew it would affect naturalized citizens.

But the AG’s defiance is unsurprising. State officials have continued to back the voter review efforts even as widespread errors emerged, saying federal and state laws require them to maintain accurate voter rolls.

This piece was originally published in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Share