DPS director takes "full responsibility" for data errors in Texas voter citizenship review

Texas Tribune News

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, testifies during Senate Education Committee on March 19th, 2013
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, testifies during Senate Education Committee on March 19th, 2013
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

After being rebuked by Gov. Greg Abbott for the state’s botched review of the voter rolls, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety took “full responsibility” Tuesday for providing data to the secretary of state’s office that included thousands of individuals whose citizenship should never have been in question.

Testifying before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Steve McCraw offered a mea culpa for the role his agency played in transmitting flawed data to the secretary of state. That data led state officials to mistakenly challenge the eligibility of almost 25,000 registered voters who had already proved their citizenship status to DPS.

McCraw explained that DPS lacked a “senior-level person in position” at the beginning of the review process, which dates back to last March, to help explain the data to other state officials.

“If we had done that, there never would have been U.S. naturalized citizens known to DPS that was provided to the secretary of state that would have gone out through the election process and caused the problems that is causing right now,” McCraw said.

Those naturalized citizens made up about a quarter of the almost 100,000 individuals the secretary of state’s office catalogued as possible noncitizens. Officials have previously said that a miscommunication between the two offices led state election officials to misinterpret a citizenship flag in the data and erroneously question the citizenship status of those voters.

“I take full responsibility as the leader of the Department of Public Safety, recognizing there’s some complex issues with our data,” McCraw said. “We’re the experts on our data. If we had a senior person in place, I am confident that that would not have happened. I can assure you of that.”

But the balance of the list distributed by the secretary of state to county officials in January remains flawed. Secretary of state officials based their review on data they knew would not account for individuals who became naturalized citizens after providing DPS with information that showed they were noncitizens when they obtained a driver’s license or ID card.

Agency officials have said they knew naturalized citizens could be impacted by the review because immigrants who become naturalized citizens are not required to update DPS about their citizenship status.

Federal District Judge Fred Biery pointed to that when he temporarily blocked the state from purging any voters as part of the citizenship review. In a scathing order, Biery noted that the secretary of state had burdened “perfectly legal naturalized Americans” who received “ham-handed and threatening” letters asking them to prove their citizenship within 30 days to avoid being kicked off the voter rolls.

“No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment,” Biery wrote.

McCraw’s testimony is the the first public statement he’s made since Abbott slammed his department for not “adequately” communicating to the secretary of state that the data at the heart of the controversial voter review was “admittedly flawed.” Abbott specifically passed the blame onto McCraw for for mishandling the issue.

Abbott turned on McCraw, the longtime head of the department, amid ongoing uncertainty over the confirmation of David Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide who the governor appointed to serve as secretary of state. Whitley has faced intense scrutiny over the review effort, in part, because of the errors in the data, but also because his office moved forward with its investigation of the voter rolls even though top officials knew that naturalized citizens — separate from those erroneously included in the data — would be swept up in the review.

McCraw’s comments to lawmakers came a day after the secretary of state’s office mistakenly sent certain counties additional names for citizenship reviews while state election officials were testing new data from DPS. A spokesman for the agency said they had inadvertently flagged those individuals because of a technical error they blamed on a vendor and asked counties not to take any action on the names they received.