Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) talks to reporters outside the White House in Washington on March 24, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Columnist

A massive scheme to commit voter fraud is going on right now in Texas.

What makes it all the more cynical and twisted is that it is being perpetrated in the name of preventing voter fraud. And top officials in the state are complicit.

It started on Jan. 25, with an alarmist, misleading advisory sent to county registrars, the officials who oversee voter rolls in the Lone Star State.

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, who until December had been deputy chief of staff to Gov. Greg Abbott (R), claimed in a news release that Department of Public Safety records showed nearly 100,000 registered voters had not been citizens when they applied for their driver’s licenses. More than half of them — 58,000 — had voted in at least one election.

The advisory acknowledged these were “WEAK matches” (the advisory’s capitalization, not mine). But the secretary of state said local officials should demand that all of those named produce evidence of citizenship. If they failed to respond or provide documents within 30 days, those voters could be purged from the rolls. Whitley also noted that knowingly voting in an election when a person is not eligible is a second-degree felony in Texas.

From there, predictably, the echo chamber took over.

“VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” tweeted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Abbott followed by retweeting Paxton and declaring flatly that this was evidence of “illegal vote registration. I support prosecution where appropriate.”

Then it blared from the biggest amplifier of all. “58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote,” President Trump tweeted at this latest purported evidence to support one of his favorite conspiracy theories. “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped.”

Study after study has shown it is exceedingly rare for someone who is not a citizen to attempt to vote. And registrars across the state immediately recognized the problems with both the claims of widespread illegal balloting and Whitley’s approach for rooting it out. In 2017, more than 1.8 million Texans were naturalized citizens. What is becoming apparent is that many who landed on the list are people who took their oath of citizenship since the last time they got a driver’s license.

In El Paso County, for instance, election administrator Lisa Wise saw one of her own staff members named on the list of 4,152 names she received. “We had a naturalization party for her” when the staffer became a citizen in 2017, Wise told the Texas Tribune. “She had gone and gotten her driver’s license, I think, four years ago.”

At the Dallas Morning News, reporter Julieta Chiquillo discovered she, too, was on the list. Chiquillo became a U.S. citizen in 2016. “The next day,” she wrote, “I registered to vote. After a decade of paying taxes, being repeatedly scrutinized and playing by the rules, there was no sweeter triumph than to finally call myself an American.”

What the Salvadoran immigrant didn’t do was renew her driver’s license. Why should she? It doesn’t expire until 2020.

Texas is not the first state to try this specious method of matching driver’s license applications to voter registration rolls. Colorado and Florida did something like it in 2012, and failed to come up with more than a handful of isolated instances in which people who were not eligible actually voted.

Then again, maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls was probably not the point of the absurd and offensive exercise by the Republicans, who have maintained an iron grip on Texas politics since the mid-1990s.

A double-digit turnout surge in last year’s midterm elections portends the possibility that the GOP may be losing its hold on this increasingly diverse state. And naturalized citizens tend to vote at higher rates than U.S.-born Latinos and Asians.

The secretary of state’s office has since scrambled to walk back parts of its directive — calling the registrar’s office in Waco-area McLennan County, for instance, to tell it to disregard the entire list of 366 supposedly suspect names the state provided.

Civil rights groups have also filed at least three lawsuits, and Whitley faces what promises to be a blistering confirmation hearing Thursday before a state Senate committee. News organizations such as the Texas Tribune have also done an admirable job exposing the debacle for what it is.

So the secretary of state no doubt will be forced to back down. But the fraud will have succeeded: The lie that tens of thousands of voters are voting illegally will live on.