State of Texas: The path forward for the Whitley nomination

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – The man at the center of the controversy over a list that incorrectly flagged thousands of registered voters as non-citizens is one step closer to being confirmed as the Texas Secretary of State.

On Thursday, the Senate Nominations Committee voted to advance the nomination of David Whitley to the full Senate for confirmation.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) spoke out against approving Whitley before the vote. “We’re senators with a duty to assure our state does not deny people equal protection of the laws, senators with a duty to protect the right to vote,” Watson told his committee colleagues.

The vote was four-to-three along party lines.

This week’s State of Texas politics program features an in-depth discussion of the Whitley nomination, and the prospects moving forward.  Host Josh Hinkle was joined by Texas Tribune reporter Emma Platoff and KUT Radio Senior Editor Ben Philpott.  Here’s a transcript of the discussion:

JOSH:    We heard Senator Watson speak out against Whitley’s nomination. He also raised concerns that Senate leaders could try to call the vote when one or more Democrats were absent to push him through.  Is that the only way that this is going to move forward, Emma?

EMMA: So far, we’ve seen all 12 Texas Senate Democrats say they’re against the confirmation. If they all stick together, and they’re all on the floor, which is an important point that Senator Watson raised, then the confirmation can’t move forward. That said, we weren’t expecting to see him move out of committee and he did this week. That’s the most progress he’s made in awhile.

JOSH: So big picture, what’s the impact if he does get approved?

BEN: Well, if he does get approved it is just another, it’s just an example of the Republicans do totally control state government and despite the concerns, despite the lawsuits, overnor Abbott believes in his former Chief of Staff and wants him to have this job. It will be interesting, it’s going to take three Democrats to walk off the floor, or to not be there, for the Republicans alone to get him through. If one flips, we were doing math earlier, if one flips, one Democrat flips and joins the Republicans, then only one Democrat would have to be absent for this to go through. But this seems like a fight that Democrats are willing to dig in on.

EMMA: And we’re getting the same from the Governor who said on the radio earlier this week that he wouldn’t be surprised if some Democrats changed their position. He’s been sending people off to have meetings. Secretary Whitley has been holding meetings and it seems no one’s ready to give up on this fight yet.

BEN:  I just think nationally, voting has become such a big deal. From what’s happened in North Carolina with the election fraud there to the speaker of the U.S. Senate coming on the floor this week or last week and saying everyone needs to watch out for voter fraud and Democrats need to watch out voting on these things. I just don’t know that this is an issue where you’re going to be able to flip Democrats considering just the national implications of it. And with a president who constantly is talking about …illegal voters all over the country.

EMMA: And of course in Texas, the history is multiple findings, finding after finding from federal courts of intentional discrimination from Texas Republicans. It seems like we may be on our way to that finding again.  A federal judge just this week said that we need to put this on hold while three separate federal lawsuits from civil rights groups proceed trying to stop Texas from purging these voters before we can really get a handle on with the flawed data set.

BEN: And it was not a polite ruling either, saying the effort from the Secretary of State’s office was ham-handed.  And that any county that wants to do anything about this list has to contact the judge first. 

JOSH: What’s the impact if he is not approved?

EMMA:  Well, if there’s no vote on Secretary Whitley’s nomination before the end of the session, he can’t serve after the session ends.  If he’s rejected, he’s out of the job immediately. But ultimately, however it happens, if he ends up getting ousted from the position, Governor Abbott will appoint someone else, and I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that he would appoint someone who’s ideologically super-different from Secretary Whitley.

BEN: And if it happens where we just don’t get a vote for the rest of the session, then the Governor could appoint someone and it would be a year and a half before they would come up, so they would just be in that office.

JOSH: Obviously, one of the leaders who has kind of come into this controversy when we talk about the possibility of voter fraud is Ken Paxton, Attorney General, because he put out that release saying that this was voter fraud. How is that going for him? Are we seeing a lot of push back with his office?

EMMA: His office was actually named in one of the federal lawsuits and the judge this week said I’m not going to take any action to sort of censure Ken Paxton. The biggest complaint civil rights groups had was this kind of immediate tweet “voter fraud alert” in all caps, which they say there’s no evidence yet that there was any voter fraud at all. The judge said I’m not going to take action on that. Ken Paxton has a first amendment right to worry about voter fraud if he chooses to.

JOSH: Are people calling him out on this?

BEN:  I think Democrats surely are.  And they are actually calling him out in terms of not just him, but the governor, the president, again what they see as a coordinated effort to spin this into massive voter fraud as opposed to what it appears to be, which is a handful of people that were on the rolls…. And that’s I think what frustrates Democrats the most is that they don’t want there to be this false narrative of having a hundred thousand people, undocumented people on the voter rolls.

EMMA: The other question of course, relating to the Attorney General’s is whether these people are going to be prosecuted. And his office has kind of given contradictory answers to that. So we don’t know exactly what’s going on.

JOSH: A lot to see how it’s going to turn out. Ben, Emma, thank you very much.

BEN: Thank you.

EMMA: Thanks for having us.

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