AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Saying there is no evidence of widespread election fraud in Texas, a federal judge Wednesday blocked the removal of any registered voter after state Republican leaders loudly but wrongly questioned the U.S. citizenship of tens of thousands of people.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio temporarily halts a bungled search for illegal voters in Texas, which began in January with the release of a deeply flawed list of 98,000 voters who were flagged as possibly not being citizens. Those names were immediately referred to prosecutors , and Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton amplified the announcement as a "VOTER FRAUD ALERT."
Within days, however, it emerged that the list wasn't vetted and included scores of U.S. citizens. Biery called the search a "a solution looking for a problem" and barred elections officials from asking anyone on the list to affirm their citizenship.
"Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us," Biery wrote.
Paxton said after the decision that the state is weighing its options.
"Today's ruling involves a federal district court improperly assuming control over key aspects of the State's obligation under federal and state law to maintain the integrity of its voter rolls," he said.
The decision is a victory for civil rights groups that swiftly sued after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's new elections chief, Secretary of State David Whitley, announced that his office had compared voter rolls against a database of legal U.S. residents with state IDs.
Whitley has defended the effort as "list maintenance" of the voter rolls required by law. His office said in a statement it appreciated the judge's "acknowledgment that the list maintenance process was performed in good faith." It added that Whitley met Wednesday with plaintiffs in the lawsuit to solicit feedback and make clear "that every option is on the table."
The state originally claimed that 58,000 names on the list had voted in at least one election since 1996, prompting President Donald Trump to take to Twitter and renew his unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud. But significantly, the Texas list failed to exclude voters who legally cast ballots only after becoming naturalized citizens.
"This is an extremely important ruling to help prevent eligible voters in Texas from getting kicked off the voter rolls," said Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas.
The fallout has jeopardized Whitley's nomination in the Texas Senate, where all 12 Democrats have come out against his confirmation. That means Whitley, a former Abbott aide who was appointed in December, likely can't get through the Republican-controlled Senate because he would need some Democrats to reach a two-third margin on the day of his confirmation vote.
Biery said Whitley's office "created this mess." Only 80 of the original 98,000 names on the list have been identified as being ineligible to vote, according to his ruling.
"The evidence has shown in a hearing before this Court that there is no widespread voter fraud," Biery wrote.
Abbott has stood by Whitley even as Democrats last week lined up to effectively block his confirmation. Whitley can serve until the end of May without a vote.