Texas’ voter registration process relies upon an honor system. The state does not require voter registration applicants to provide proof of citizenship, nor do state officials independently verify their citizenship status.
The exact number of noncitizens on the voter rolls and illegally voting remains unclear, as state officials have been reluctant to resolve the problem.
A WFAA investigation concluded “hundreds, if not thousands of non-U.S. citizens, are registered to vote in Texas, and some have cast ballots in elections.” The news report found noncitizens will declare themselves as such to avoid jury duty. Once they self-identify as a noncitizen, they can easily be removed from the voter rolls. Many of these individuals were found to have voted.
The main problem is not verifying citizenship on the front end. Applicants seeking to register in Texas are only required to swear—under threat of perjury—that they’re a citizen and eligible to vote.
Despite widespread concern about election integrity, Republican lawmakers failed to address this loophole in 2019, despite the looming 2020 presidential election. As a result, the Texas Secretary of State will continue to process any application submitted to their office as long as the applicant claims to be a citizen.
This explains why Rosa Maria Ortega, a Mexican national and green card holder, was able to register and vote illegally in Dallas County at least five times between 2004 and 2014. The Texas Attorney General’s office and Tarrant County District Attorney’s office jointly prosecuted and convicted Ortega. It was revealed during her trial that she falsely claimed U.S. citizenship on a voter registration form in Dallas County and illegally voted multiple times.
It’s obvious why elections officials in Dallas didn’t catch the error—Ortega lied on her application, and there is no state agency required to verify the citizenship status of applicants.
How was Ortega caught? For some reason, she told the truth, admitting she was a noncitizen and ineligible to vote.
Texans may be under the false illusion there is a state government agency charged with verifying the citizenship of applicants; there is not. County registrars are legally charged with maintaining the accuracy of their county’s voter rolls, but they do so without state oversight.
How many other cases are there like Ortega’s? There’s no easy answer because the registration process relies upon the honesty of applicants. And while the law requires county election officials to maintain accurate voter rolls, whether or not they do so effectively is a separate matter.
Despite the presidential election looming in 2020, and Texas being on the verge of turning blue, Republican lawmakers failed to pass any election reform legislation in 2019 worth mentioning.
State Sen. Pat Fallon (R–Frisco) filed Senate Bill 482, which would require applicants to show proof of citizenship, but it was never given a hearing in the State Affairs Committee chaired by State Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Houston). Senate Bill 1228, filed by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), would have required citizenship verification, was also not given a hearing by Huffman.
An omnibus election integrity bill passed the upper chamber in Senate Bill 9, but House Speaker Dennis Bonnen delayed for two weeks before sending the bill to the House Elections Committee chaired by State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R–Fort Worth). Klick waited another two weeks to hold a hearing, before substituting the bill and eventually voting it out at the 11th hour.
Klick’s delays—along with her fear of Democrats threatening to challenge the proposed law in court—resulted in SB 9 never reaching the House floor for debate or vote. It’s rumored Klick killed SB 9 to avoid criticism and lawsuits from Democrats.
Texans who value election integrity should not expect the status quo to change unless they vocally demand that state lawmakers take action. If Republicans lose the Texas House in 2020, the window to fix the problem will be slammed shut.