On Thursday, the confirmation hearing for Texas secretary of state nominee David Whitley was far from the usual formality, and his permanent appointment is still in doubt.
Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitley to the post in December. In January, Whitley’s office alerted county officials that 95,000 people whose citizenship was said to be in doubt, had registered to vote in Texas – something various counties have found to be inaccurate. As a result, Whitley faced intense questioning during his hearing.
John Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network, and says while Whitley has served as secretary of state since his appointment, he still faces a full confirmation process in the Senate, which began one the legislature came into session. Moritz says under normal circumstances, a Republican appointee in a Republican-dominated Senate should move easily through the confirmation process. But that isn’t happening with Whitley.
“I did a little research. … The Legislative Reference Library could not find an instance where a secretary of state failed to win Senate confirmation in Texas,” Moritz says.
At the hearing, Democratic Sen. Royce West of Dallas asked Whitley how he defined voter suppression. Whitley initially said, “I think it’s irrelevant how I would define it.”
Whitely continued: “I think that what we are doing with the counties is ensuring that voter suppression does not take place.”
Moritz says the committee questioned Whitley about voter suppression because of the discredited January report claiming that the names of 95,000 non-citizens appeared on voter rolls. Whitley called it a “voter-list maintenance” process, and resisted characterizing it as voter suppression.
“It’s a fancy way of saying that they looked over the list with the help of DPS driver’s license information,” Moritz says. “But once the counties and others started diving deeper into the data, a lot of these names were of people who were naturalized U.S. citizens [who] have every right to vote in Texas elections, no ifs, ands or buts.”
Moritz says a lot – if not all – of the names appeared to be of Hispanic or Latino origin.
“Hispanics are a reliable Democratic voting bloc, so Democrats, they were upset by this and they wanted some answers,” Moritz says.
Moritz says Whitley appeared defensive when Democratic senators asked him about the voter-list matter.
“He basically said, ‘We don’t want anybody who is not eligible to vote in Texas, voting,'” Moritz says. “Conversely, he also said, ‘We don’t want to prevent anybody who is legal to vote in Texas from voting.'”
But he says Democratic senators seemed skeptical of that assertion, and so they continued to challenge Whitley.
“They pushed back pretty forcefully during the course of that hearing,” Moritz says.
If the Senate committee approves Whitley’s nomination, the full Senate will vote on it. But Moritz says it’s not a given that the Senate would confirm his appointment because he would need a two-thirds vote.
“Republicans do not have a two-thirds majority,” Moritz says. “So, if the Democrats decide that they’re gonna stick together and send a message to the governor and send a message on voter suppression … it could be a rough sled for Secretary Whitley moving forward.”
Written by Caroline Covington.