Texas used money from the Help America Vote Act to help pay for its botched voter citizenship review

By Alexa Ura

Texas’ botched search for noncitizens on the voter rolls, which ended in a legal settlement after state officials jeopardized the voting rights of thousands of legitimate voters, was paid for in part with dollars earmarked for bolstering election security amid concerns of interference in 2016.

The Secretary of State’s Office used roughly $121,000 in funds it received from the federal Help America Vote Act to run its search for supposed noncitizens. The dollar figure was provided to state lawmakers and confirmed Wednesday by a spokesman for the secretary of state who said it was a legitimate use of the money because it was meant to improve the state’s maintenance of its massive voter registration list.

Texas was granted $23.3 million as part of Congress’ 2018 reauthorization of the Help America Vote Act to help improve and secure elections. It allowed the state to put the money toward election security enhancements, including replacing voting equipment, upgrading election-related computer systems to address cybersecurity vulnerabilities and funding “other activities that will improve the security of elections for federal office.”

“Our office’s expenditure enhances election security by allowing the state to improve the integrity and accuracy of the statewide voter registration database,” Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said in an email.

From the start, state officials have cited the need to protect the integrity of the rolls as the reason for the review. But naturalized citizens and civil rights groups that sued alleged the state’s efforts violated the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act because they focused on voters of colors and immigrants. A federal judge appeared to agree when he put the review on hold over concerns that “perfectly legal naturalized Americans” were targeted in ways those born in the country would not be.

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday argued that those efforts flew in the face of the Help America Vote Act’s initial purpose to improve elections and voter access.

“HAVA funds should be used to improve voter participation, not remove eligible Texans from the rolls,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin.

The $121,000 was spent on software updates that made it possible for the secretary of state to receive data from the Department of Public Safety on people who had at one point in recent years indicated they were not citizens when obtaining a driver’s license or ID card.

The review itself was flawed from the start and swept up legitimate voters who had seemingly become naturalized citizens after obtaining those IDs. Within days of announcing it was tagging almost 100,000 voters for citizenship checks, officials with the secretary of state backtracked on that number, eventually revealing it had been overstated by at least 25,000 names. Local election officials said they were able to identify other naturalized citizens on the list as well, but most investigations were halted — if they began at all — amid litigation over the review.

Criticizing the expenditure, Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia, who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said that HAVA funds were meant to “enhance” participation in the electoral process.

“They used it for exactly the opposite reason, which was to try to purge legitimate U.S. citizens from the voter rolls,” said Anchia. “That is a huge problem and one that’s worth looking into further.”

The Help America Vote Act was first passed in 2002 to enact sweeping electoral reforms. Texas received $190 million to meet its requirements to make it easier to vote, including the adoption of provisional voting and the furnishing of at least one accessible voting system at every polling location. The law also required the state to create a computerized statewide database of the voter rolls and meet enhanced standards for voting systems. Texas also told federal officials it would put the money toward voter education.

Last July, then-Secretary of State Rolando Pablos informed the director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that the more recent HAVA funding would be “optimized to further strengthen election infrastructure security” in Texas.

Noting that the money was “not nearly sufficient” to update voting machines across the state, Pablos explained the money would be put toward three primary objectives — provide cybersecurity services to Texas county election officials, assist counties in negotiating contracts for new voting equipment and enhance “security and integration” of the state’s voter rolls database.

The new HAVA dollars were largely billed as an effort to reinforce the security of elections. Replacing voting machines without paper trails tops a list by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission of the ways in which the funds may be used. Three others are focused on cybersecurity.

The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the expenditure appears to comply with the federal law. Taylor pointed to outlines and presentations by the commission that showed the money can be used for voter registration enhancements and a provision that allows for that money to be used to improve the administration of elections.

The review of the voter rolls has already cost taxpayers $450,000 that state attorneys agreed to shell out as part of the legal settlement to end the three federal lawsuits filed against the state.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.