Abbott, who has played up the fact his wife Cecilia is the state’s first Hispanic first lady, has sought to walk a fine line between fellow GOP conservatives who are immigration hard-liners and the more accommodating approach of his predecessors, former Govs. Rick Perry and George W. Bush.
But his December appointment of Whitley, a former travel aide and top assistant, soon angered many Texas Hispanics after Whitley oversaw a botched investigation that questioned the citizenship of nearly 100,000 Texas voters.
In January, Whitley issued an advisory claiming that approximately 95,000 people who identified themselves as noncitizens when applying for a driver’s license also appeared on the state’s voter rolls. About 58,000 of them had voted in one or more elections since 1996.
Whitley’s office sent letters to county election administrators urging them to investigate the names on the list for possible voter fraud. To Democrats and civil rights groups, the move appeared coordinated with other top Republicans, as Attorney General Ken Paxton and President Donald Trump quickly pounced on it as evidence of massive voter fraud.
Driver’s licenses, though, last for six years. Whitley’s critics noted that people who declared themselves legal residents or visa holders when they obtained a driver’s license – which is legal – could have become U.S. citizens and then registered to vote. State law makes no requirement that they return to tell the Department of Public Safety to update their license if they become U.S. citizens before the expiration.
Immediately, counties began finding big problems with the list Whitley’s office had sent. Three high-profile lawsuits against the state followed. In court, state officials said at least 25,000 people on the initial list had been placed there erroneously and had already proven their citizenship. In a lawsuit settlement in April, the state rescinded the advisory, agreed to other changes and pledged to pay plaintiffs $450,000 in attorney fees.
On the final day of this year’s legislative session, Whitley stepped down as interim secretary of state after all 12 Democratic senators stood firm against his confirmation. It takes two-thirds of senators present and voting to confirm a gubernatorial nominee.
The next day, Whitley transferred back to Abbott’s office, where he’d been deputy chief of staff until December. He returned to being paid $205,000 a year — this time, as Abbott’s special advisor.
On Monday, Texas Democratic Party executive director Manny Garcia laid the controversy at Abbott’s door.
“Incoming Secretary of State Hughs would be wise to respect our democracy and avoid any requests by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to suppress the vote,” Garcia said in a written statement. “We will be observing the Republican establishment’s actions very closely.”