Texas Ordered to Halt Voter Purge as Judge Weighs Arguments

(Bloomberg) -- Texas must get the approval of a federal judge before removing anyone from official voter registration rolls in a purge that could disenfranchise thousands of naturalized citizens, he ruled.

Calling letters demanding proof of citizenship sent to 98,000 registered Texas voters “ham-handed and threatening,” U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ordered the state not to send any more such communications while he weighs legal arguments.

In a short opinion stating that evidence shows there “is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas to fuel concerns of heavy voting by undocumented immigrants, Biery said the purge appears to be a “solution looking for a problem.”

The campaign was challenged in three lawsuits by a collection of minority activists and voting-rights groups as well as by individual Texans wrongly included on the purge list. The challenges were initially filed in three courts and then consolidated before Biery in San Antonio last week. On Wednesday, he said the state could continue to search for ineligible voters as long as it did so with more sensitivity to Texans’ constitutional rights and didn’t contact anyone on the list.

“Today’s ruling involves a federal district court improperly assuming control over key aspects of the state’s obligation’’ to “maintain the integrity of its voter rolls,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement, adding that “we are weighing our options.”

The purge was started by Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and supported by Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott, all Republicans. Voter fraud and voter suppression are incendiary political issues across the U.S., typically dividing Republicans from Democrats who view voter I.D. laws and the like as efforts to disenfranchise minorities. President Donald Trump tweeted last month that the Texas campaign reflected “rampant” fraud “all over the country.”

Texas has already admitted that at least 25,000 naturalized citizens were sent the letters in error after a flawed matching process between state driver’s license records and voting registration rolls failed to account for legal immigrants who became citizens in Texas during the past several decades.

The lead case is Texas League of United Latin American Citizens v. Whitley, 5:19-cv-74, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio).

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