Just as they do every year, hundreds of county officials from all over Texas are packing a hotel ballroom in Austin this week for three days of all things elections.
On the agenda are a session on paying for primary elections and one on procedures for voting by mail. A half-hour is reserved for policy updates from the legislative session that wrapped up in late May.
The annual seminar was originally supposed to begin with a welcome from the secretary of state, Texas' chief election official. But with county workers gathered around dozens of round tables, this year's confab kicked off with a deputy; the secretary of state position has been vacant since late May, when David Whitley lost his job over a botched review of the voter rolls.
It’s been 63 days since Democratic senators blocked Whitley’s confirmation and cut his tenure short. The Texas Constitution states the governor shall “without delay” make another nomination to fill the vacant post. Gov. Greg Abbott's office did not respond to questions about why the post has remained vacant for so long and whether there was a timeline in place to name a replacement.
Abbott announced Dec. 17 he was tapping Whitley, a longtime aide, to serve as secretary of state — just 11 days after Whitley’s predecessor made his resignation public.
The vacancy at the top of the secretary of state’s office illustrates the ongoing fallout from the state’s failed efforts to scour the voter rolls for noncitizens that jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens and resulted in three federal lawsuits that were ultimately settled by scrapping the entire review.
A spokesman for the secretary of state’s office also did not respond to questions about the vacancy. Deputy Secretary of State Joe Esparza has been taking on much of the secretary of state’s public responsibilities, attending economic development events, drawing the ballot order for the upcoming constitutional amendment election and delivering Monday's welcome.
“I find no other way to express my gratitude in advance for your help this coming election cycle but to reaffirm our promise to be accessible and to be helpful and responsive in every way,” Esparza said at the meeting. “We want to move toward a more collaborative effort to get it right because we must get it right. The people of Texas deserve no less.”
Whitley, meanwhile, was almost immediately rehired by the governor’s office on a six-figure salary.
The litigation over the bungled review effort left taxpayers on the hook for $450,000 in costs and attorney fees for the lawyers of the naturalized citizens and civil rights groups that sued. The groups alleged in court that the review was unconstitutional and violated federal protections for voters of color. The state's review also prompted a congressional investigation over concerns of voting rights violations.
It also went a long way in fraying the relationship between the state’s elections office and the county officials it depends on to run elections — many of whom remain irked and unsettled by the state’s missteps or, as one election official put it Monday, “that mess.”
“In any other year, it would be nice and symbolic to have the secretary of state talk to us,” said Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators. But many county officials are still waiting for an explanation from the secretary of state’s office on how they got the voter rolls review so wrong, he said.
After tagging about 98,000 voters as “possible non-U.S. citizens,” the secretary of state’s office shipped off lists to each county with an advisory that detailed the procedure officials could follow to conduct citizenship checks.
Those instructions included the option to send letters demanding that voters prove their citizenship within 30 days to avoid being kicked off the voter rolls, which several counties immediately sent out and several naturalized citizens received.
That landed at least nine counties in court. And lawyers defending the state in those proceedings placed much of the blame for any mistakes on the county officials, saying the counties had behaved “contrary to state law” when they acted on data the state’s advisory repeatedly described as “actionable.”
By then, counties had already been forced to revoke some of those inquiries after the state sent notice that it mistakenly included 25,000 citizens on the list of supposed questionable voters.
Some county officials are looking to new leadership as a reset. But there was little mention Monday morning of the vacancy at the top of the secretary of state's office or of the state’s errors. Instead, Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, informed county workers that the secretary of state’s office would be moving forward with a revised effort to review the voter rolls for noncitizens.
Pointing to the settlement in the litigation from earlier this year, Ingram said the state would be rolling out lists of registered voters who visited the Department of Public Safety and indicated they were not citizens in the last week. Those weekly review efforts could begin as soon as next month.
“We’re currently testing the data with DPS to make sure we don’t run into more problems,” Ingram said.
Election security was top of mind at the state’s seminar, which Ingram opened by noting that the election process — and the need to enforce security measures — was on “display like never before” following Russian interference in the 2016 election and fears about foreign intrusion during the 2020 cycle.
But with no secretary of state, Texas won’t have its top elections official at an all-day training by the Department of Homeland Security on securing elections. This week’s seminar is the only time this many local election officials will all be in the same room discussing election procedures and security ahead of the 2020 election cycle.
“There’s never a good time for them to have that vacancy at the top,” Davis said. “But this really isn’t a good time.”
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state's office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.