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2019 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Texas Tribune: Protecting Voters’ Rights

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The press release landed late on a Friday afternoon: State officials had found 95,000 “non-citizens” on the Texas voter rolls — and 58,000 of those people had voted.

The reaction from GOP state leaders, who have long pushed unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud in Texas, was swift and certain.

“VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted.

“Thanks to Attorney General Paxton and the Secretary of State for uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration,” Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted, adding, “I support prosecution where appropriate.”

Even President Donald Trump chimed in. “58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Most Texas news organizations parroted the party line, running headlines like “58,000 non-U.S. citizens voted illegally in Texas elections.” Not The Texas Tribune. The state’s claims immediately raised red flags for our voting rights reporter, Alexa Ura.

Ura knew the state had used driver’s license records — where applicants must reveal their citizenship status — to cross-reference the voter rolls and flag potential illegal voters. She also knew that in Texas, you only have to renew your driver’s license every six years — meaning many thousands of people flagged by the state’s review had almost certainly become citizens before they voted.

Her breaking news story on state leaders’ “voter fraud” announcement explained those flawed methods and cast serious doubts on their claims. But her follow-up reporting — dozens of explanatory and investigative stories over as many weeks — had far greater impact than merely debunking irresponsible claims.

Among the revelations exposed by Ura’s reporting:

— Within days of announcing the voter roll review, the Texas Secretary of State’s office quietly informed local election officials that thousands of voters it had flagged didn’t belong on the list.

— While the Texas Attorney General’s office was telling lawmakers it wasn’t conducting criminal investigations into people on the list, it was telling county election officials the opposite.

— Without the state’s permission, multiple big counties quietly halted the voter review over concerns that it was botched.

— A mistake by a state contractor caused the Secretary of State’s office to mistakenly flag even more voters for a review — though a judge had already halted the review.

— Texas officials used money from the federal Help America Vote act — aimed at getting more Americans to the polls — to pay for its voter roll review.

Ura’s 30-plus stories on the review also went beyond the flawed list to show the human impact of the voter probe.

She produced a moving interactive story that gave voice to three naturalized citizens who had their voting eligibility questioned.

She told the behind-the-scenes story of how the review unfolded.

And she highlighted astounding admissions from state officials that they knew even before they started their review that naturalized citizens would be swept up in it.