When Texas election officials announced their plan to vet the legal status of 95,000 voters, President Donald Trump took notice.
But in a tweet about the matter, he got the facts wrong.
"58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg," Trump tweeted Jan. 27. "All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID! @foxandfriends"
In this case, Trump is miscasting information from the Texas Secretary of State.
The state's list is not the final word on how many people have voted illegally. It is now up to county officials to collect more information about these voters and determine their citizenship status. It's possible in some cases, for example, that someone obtained a driver’s license before earning their citizenship.
The whittling process that is just starting across Texas has played out in other states that mounted similar voter roll purges based on driver’s license data, said Justin Levitt, a Loyola law school professor and expert on voter registration.
"Percentages are infinitesimal of the original eye-popping headline," Levitt said.
For nearly a year, the Texas Secretary of State and the Texas Department of Public Safety have been trying to identify noncitizen voters. (This started long before Gov. Greg Abbott appointed David Whitley as secretary of State in December.) They argue that any fraud undermines the integrity of elections while voting rights advocates say it is an attempt to suppress voter participation.
Voting in an election in which the person knows he or she is not eligible to vote is a second-degree felony in Texas.
State officials looked at two sets of data for their current investigation: the names of people who provided documents indicating they were not citizens when they obtained a driver’s license or a state ID, and the names of people who registered to vote.
That resulted in a list of 95,000 people with a current driver’s license or state ID who also had a voter registration record in Texas. Of those, 58,000 people voted in elections back to 1996, said Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of State.
But the same advisory that is the source of those numbers urged caution in interpreting them, using all capital letters to describe the similar records as "WEAK matches." The announcement didn’t say 58,000 noncitizens definitely voted.
Despite the warning, the numbers inspired some overhyped reactions, including from the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who tweeted a "voter fraud alert."
County officials can’t cancel a voter’s registration based on the information provided so far. The advisory states that if registrars have reason to believe a voter is not eligible, they should send a letter to the voters asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days. After that point, election officials can cancel the person’s registration.
Voting rights advocates raised a key concern about the data: driver’s license data may not reflect a person’s current citizenship status.
"Indeed, between 52,000-63,000 are naturalized every year in Texas," Texas Civil Rights Project spokesman Zenén Jaimes Pérez told PolitiFact.
We asked the Secretary of State’s office if it’s possible that some of the people in the 58,000 or 95,000 groups have since become citizens.
"That’s up to the county voter registrars and/or the Attorney General’s office to determine," Taylor responded.
On Jan. 28, county election officials across Texas were starting the process of examining the information from the state. So far, it is too early to determine if those on the list are actual noncitizen voters, said Chris Davis, the head of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators and the administrator in Williamson County.
Bruce Elfant, the voter registrar in Travis County and a Democrat, said that he has concerns about whether the data reflects current citizenship information.
"We really know very little at this point," he told PolitiFact. "Those who weighed in alleging voter fraud, I would say it is premature and irresponsible. … This is going to be long and complicated."
Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County, told the Houston Chronicle that he’s skeptical of the use of Department of Public Safety records that he described as "notoriously" outdated for the citizenship status of drivers.
Ray said the county is going to compare the list of names from the state with a list of people who have gone through naturalization ceremonies.
In addition to outdated citizenship information, it’s possible that there are mismatches of people with similar names.
Myrna Pérez, who works on voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice, said she was once denied an absentee ballot by the state of Texas because her mother, who has the same name, had already voted.
"That may sound like a one-off, but actually it’s not when we are talking about databases that big," she said.
While the final outcome in Texas could be months away, we know that proven instances of noncitizens voting in U.S. elections are rare.
A national database of criminal convictions of election fraud by the conservative Heritage Foundation shows four individuals who have been convicted of noncitizen voting in Texas. In November, a Texas appeals court upheld the conviction of Rosa Maria Ortega, a green card holder, who was sentenced to eight years in jail after voting multiple times. And on Jan. 15, Paxton announced that a noncitizen was charged with illegal voting.
A 2017 report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that election officials in 42 jurisdictions referred an estimated 30 incidents of suspected noncitizen voting (out of more than 23 million votes) for further investigation or prosecution.
In August 2018, federal prosecutors in North Carolina announced charges for 19 foreign nationals believed to have voted in the 2016 general election. So far, 10 have pleaded guilty to voting, and one pled guilty to aiding and abetting a noncitizen in falsely claiming citizenship in order to vote, a spokesman for the U.S. District Attorney in the eastern district of North Carolina said.
Florida engaged in a controversial attempt to search for noncitizen voters based on driver’s license leading up to the 2012 election. The search was rife with errors, turning up the name of a Brooklyn-born World War II veteran as a noncitizen voter. The state initially identified 182,000 people but ended the purge after removing just 85 names.
Before we issue our ruling, a quick word about Trump's call for "strong voter ID." Texas already has among the strictest voter ID laws in the country. The original 2011 law required voters to show a government-issued ID such as a driver’s license or passport. After a court found that the law had a discriminatory effect, the state passed a new law that allowed voters to provide other forms of ID, and it survived a federal appellate test in 2018.
Trump said, "58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote."
Trump omits that even the Texas Secretary of State has expressed caution in these numbers, calling the match in records "WEAK" and outlining a process county elections officials can undergo to check the flagged voters.
At this point, we don’t know how many on the list culled over 22 years of data will be proven to be noncitizens who cast ballots — some may have gotten their citizenship after their driver’s license and voted legally.
Because he inaccurately characterized the early stage of what Texas actually reported, we rate this claim False.