Beto O'Rourke (AP/Eric Gay)

How Betomania just beat Texas' voter suppression chief: Secretary of state forced to resign

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley is out, after his attempted voter purge. It's a win for Democrats — and Beto


Sophia Tesfaye
May 28, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

Elections have consequences — but even some losers eventually see long-term wins.

While Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for the U.S. Senate ultimately ended in his defeat last fall, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, oversaw such a massive surge in voter turnout that his coattails allowed several state Senate seats to flip to the Democrats. Those stage legislators just blocked the confirmation of Texas’ chief voter suppressor.

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The ill-fated and short-lived tenure of Texas Secretary of State David Whitley officially came to end on Monday after months of controversy. Whitley was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on an interim basis after the previous secretary of state resigned. Whitley left his job as Abbott’s deputy chief of staff in December and immediately began a campaign to purge nearly 100,000 voters from the Texas voter rolls. His botched suppression effort pulled Texas into three federal lawsuits, prompted a congressional investigation over concerns of voting rights violations, and frayed the relationship between the state’s election office and local election officials.  

In January, just one month after taking the job as Texas’ top election official,  Whitley announced that an investigation by his office had identified almost 100,000 potential non-citizens who had illegally registered to vote, including nearly 60,000 Texans who had cast at least one ballot since 1996. Whitley also said he referred the list of names to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and county election administrators, urging them to investigate the names on the list for possible prosecution. President Trump, to no one's surprise was quick to use Whitley’s claim as evidence of widespread election fraud.

But after swift pushback, Whitley quietly walked back his claim within days: There were glaring errors in the methodology used to compare the massive voter registration database to a list of Texans who in recent years indicated to the state they were not citizens when they obtained driver’s licenses or ID cards. Most obviously, some Texans could have become U.S. citizens after they applied for a driver’s license but before they registered to vote. In Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, more than half of the 30,000 Texans named by Whitley were placed there in error. In McLennan County, all the people on the list were citizens. Whitley later admitted that his office knew all along that naturalized citizens could have been included in his list, even if they had obtained the necessary documents to vote legally. Still, his office again mistakenly flagged voters for purging in March because of what his staff claimed was a vendor error.

A U.S. District Court judge eventually blocked Texas from sending letters to those identified as potential non-citizen voters that demanded proof of citizenship within 30 days. Whitley was forced to pay $450,000 in taxpayer funds to cover legal costs and fees. As The Texas Tribune reported, Whitley remained unfazed during the months-long debacle:

In a letter distributed after his nomination momentarily stalled in committee, Whitley held firm behind the overall review effort as a legitimate exercise to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls. He did not admit his office had erred when it questioned the citizenship of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, even though it had quietly informed local election officials of the mistakes.

Instead, he vaguely admitted there were some shortcomings to the data his office relied on and offered that his office should have communicated better to ensure that his “goal to ensure that no qualified voters are removed from the rolls” was clear.

“To the extent my actions missed that mark, I apologize,” Whitley wrote.

For his part, Abbott continued to support his longtime aide and mentee even as it became apparent that his nomination was doomed due to complete Democratic opposition, Texas was reprimanded by federal courts and Congress opened an official investigation into Whitley’s purge efforts.

“We’ll need to wait and see how today turns out,” Abbott told reporters on Monday morning, hours before Whitley tendered his resignation. He did so just before the Texas legislature was set to adjourn without taking the confirmation vote Whitley needed to keep his job. Under the Texas Constitution, lawmakers must confirm appointments before the legislative session officially ends. If they don’t, the appointee has to immediately vacate the position and the governor must choose someone else. But Abbott refused to pull Whitley’s nomination before lawmakers adjourned for two years on Monday. Abbott can now appoint another interim replacement until the legislature convenes in 2021.

Despite his efforts, Abbott failed to get Democrats to accede, even though the minority party in the Lone Star State has long had a reputation of futile opposition. That’s because O’Rourke’s losing Senate campaign resulted in enough Democratic down-ballot wins to make a difference. Whitley needed two-thirds support in the Senate to keep his job, but Democrats now hold 12 of the 31 seats in the chamber — and all 12 opposed his nomination.

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"The reality is Democrats showed solidarity on that issue because of Whitley's position on voter suppression. That was the issue. It was not that he was not a good person. It seems like he was a great person," Democratic state Sen. Royce West said of Whitley's resignation. "You've got to have a secretary of state that will be fair and balanced."

Republicans lost more than a dozen state legislative seats in Texas in the 2018 midterms, including 12 House seats and 2 Senate seats. They also flipped two U.S. House seats in suburban areas that had been held by Republicans for 18 and 22 years respectively. Even though he fell about 2.6 percentage points short of defeating Ted Cruz, O’Rourke increased Democratic voter turnout last fall by 153% and the youth vote by 412%. If Democrats can flip nine more State House seats in 2020 — which some observers think is conceivable — they will take control of that chamber for the first time since 2001.

David Whitley's resignation isn’t simply his failure, or Abbott’s defeat. It's a big win for Texas Democrats, and a victory in defeat for Beto O'Rourke.


Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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