Texas counties working on agreement stopping voter citizenship reviews

Texas Politics
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SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Nexstar) – Texas counties named in federal lawsuits over the state’s “non-citizen” voter list will work on finalizing a written agreement to take no further actions involving the list or on an individual’s voter registration status.

Attorneys for both the counties and plaintiffs said they’ll be going over drafts this week to reach an agreed order to stop voter citizenship reviews in the meantime. Lawyers for both the state and plaintiffs presented closing arguments in U.S. District Court in San Antonio Monday over a push to get a preliminary injunction on the state’s process to root out “non-citizens” on its voter lists.

In late January, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s office sent a list of 95,000 names to counties across the state, saying they were “non-citizens” and some have even voted in elections. Civil rights and voter groups sued over the state’s investigation into tens of thousands of registered voters and their citizenship status, claiming this was an attempt at voter suppression. Attorneys for the state, as well as the state’s director of elections, have repeatedly argued the list of names sent to counties from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office was supposed to be further investigated by local county elections officials and treated as a “weak” match.

Betsy Schonhoff, who previously worked at the Secretary of State’s Office, testified in court prior to closing arguments. Until late last week, attorneys for the plaintiffs said they were unable to locate Schonhoff, despite multiple attempts to try to reach her. Late last week, Schonhoff’s attorney, who works in the Attorney General’s Financial Litigation and Charitable Trusts Division, filed an advisory saying Schonhoff would appear in court.

Schonhoff, who worked at the Secretary of State’s Office from March 2012 until February of this year, says her resignation had nothing to do with the voter lists or its rollout and that she “left for personal reasons not related to this case.” She coordinated nine webinars and one in-person training over the data counties were going to receive related to the “non-citizen” voter lists. She says she also sent a follow-up email with the presentation used at the trainings for counties unable to attend or take the training themselves. 

“They were supposed to follow their normal list maintenance procedures,” Schonhoff said.

However, Pamela Ohlendorf, elections administrator for Caldwell County, said she viewed the advisory from the Secretary of State’s Office as an order to take action.

“They’re my directors,” she said. “So I follow my directors.”

Last Friday, Secretary Whitley also wrote to the Court saying after his office has worked with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) over the last few weeks, his office “has determined that the data from DPS can be refined to further exclude additional likely citizens from the list maintenance process” and has advised the counties of this update.

“The Secretary’s office also told the counties that if Notices of Examination had already gone out to those individuals, the counties should send follow-up letters telling the voters they are no longer under investigation and do not need to respond to the official notice,” Whitley’s filing said. “Finally, the Secretary’s office informed the counties that any individual now excluded from the list should remain registered even if he or she does not respond to the notice.”

Two other lawsuits have been consolidated with the case in San Antonio. Plaintiffs from those lawsuits are also seeking U.S. District Judge Fred Biery decision on a temporary restraining order on the state’s list activity in addition to the preliminary injunction request from all three cases. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation, said getting a temporary restraining order will be critical in order for two clients from this lawsuit to not have their voter registration statuses impacted.

Judge Biery has also issued a protective order to keep data from DPS and on the Secretary of State’s voter lists confidential. There is no timeline on when his decision will be made.

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