Texas settles lawsuit over bungled search for illegal votes

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas officials announced Friday that they settled a lawsuit over a bungled search for ineligible voters that President Donald Trump stoked over Twitter but that resulted in the U.S. citizenship of thousands of people being wrongly called into question.

The agreement officially ends a botched scouring of Texas voter rolls that began in January and was beset by deeply flawed data. It flagged nearly 100,000 registered voters but wrongly captured naturalized citizens, and a federal judge who halted the search in February noted in his order that only about 80 people to that point had been identified as potentially ineligible to vote.

The problems with the list were discovered within days, but not before Trump seized on the reports out of Texas to renew his unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud in the U.S.

It made for another volatile chapter in Texas voting battles that have simmered for a decade, which have included federal judges finding racial discrimination in voting maps and voter ID laws created by Republicans, though the state later prevailed on appeals. In February, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio called Texas’ search for non-citizen voters “a solution looking for a problem” and said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

The settlement requires Texas to change how it investigates voter citizenship and pay $450,000 in fees to civil rights groups that brought the lawsuit.

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“This settlement brings an end to a deplorable Texas farce, in which state leaders shamelessly lied about alleged widespread fraud by Latino and other immigrants, grabbing headlines and national attention,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which represented some U.S. citizens who were wrongly flagged by the state.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley said the agreement ensures the same mistakes won’t happen again under new procedures for questioning voter citizenship.

The state originally claimed that 58,000 people on the list had voted in at least one election since 1996. But significantly, Texas officials failed to exclude voters who legally cast ballots only after becoming naturalized citizens.

But going forward, Texas agreed to only flag individuals who indicate they are not U.S. citizens when applying for driver’s licenses or a state ID, yet had previously registered to vote.

“Today’s agreement accomplishes our office’s goal of maintaining an accurate list of qualified registered voters while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on naturalized U.S. citizens,” Whitley said in a statement.

The settlement might be too late to save Whitley’s job. He was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in December, but Democrats in the Texas Senate have spent months blocking Whitley’s confirmation over his office not properly vetting the list and referring the names to election fraud prosecutors.

Whitley must be confirmed before the Texas Legislature adjourns in May or Abbott will have to appoint a new chief elections officer.

Texas continues to aggressively pursue alleged cases of voter fraud. On Thursday, a Texas mayor on the U.S.-Mexico border was arrested and charged with trying to cheat his way into office through an illegal voting scheme. Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina faces three felony charges. A city spokesman says the mayor denies any wrongdoing.

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