Maj. Gen. John Nichols, outgoing Texas Adjutant General, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, and Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, incoming Texas Adjutant General, take the field during the Adjutant General Change of Command ceremony at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas on January 12, 2019.
Texas Secretary of State David Whitley (center), shown earlier this year at Camp Mabry in Austin, is at the center of a political imbroglio over whether noncitizens voted in recent elections. Credit: Flickr / Texas Military Department

“Man is the only animal that blushes,” Mark Twain observed. After a pause, he added: “Or needs to.”

My question is this: Does that subspecies of humans, homo politicus, ever blush? Are politicians genetically incapable of embarrassment?

Events in Virginia indicate that some can at least fake embarrassment when necessary. When, for example, as Democrats they depend on the African-American vote and are found apparently to have posed for grins decades earlier either as a Klansman next to a white man in blackface, or as a white man in blackface standing with a Klansman.

But here in Texas lately we’ve seen not even that hint of embarrassment. Take the case of Secretary of State David Whitley’s recent breathlessness over his office’s breakthrough investigation into apparent voter fraud in Texas. It was a rather simple “investigation.” They checked Department of Public Safety lists of people who had obtained drivers licenses as noncitizens who are in the country legally.

Whitley’s press release blared that “the Texas Secretary of State’s office discovered that a total of approximately 95,000 individuals identified by DPS as non-U.S. citizens have a matching voter registration record in Texas, approximately 58,000 of whom have voted in one or more Texas elections.”

Noting that for a person to knowingly vote illegally is a third-degree felony, Whitley boasted that he “immediately provided the data in its possession to the Texas Attorney General’s office” for investigation and prosecution.

Attorney General Ken Paxton within an hour issued a press release with this screaming headline: “Texas Secretary of State’s Office Discovers Nearly 95,000 People Identified by DPS as Non-U.S. Citizens are Registered to Vote in Texas.” The lead sentence repeated that “roughly 58,000 have voted in one or more Texas elections.”

Atty Gen. Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the State Republican Convention at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in June 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Paxton praised Whitley and said his office “will spare no effort in assisting with these troubling cases.”

Then came Gov. Greg Abbott with a tweet: “Thanks to Attorney General Paxton and the Secretary of State for uncovering and investigating this illegal vote registration. I support prosecution where appropriate. The State will work on legislation to safeguard against these illegal practices.”

And, of course, came the President of the United States in a tweet two days later: “58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID! @foxandfriends.”

Ahab was in maniacal pursuit of the Great White Whale. Republicans for years have been in maniacal pursuit of the great (nonwhite) mass voter fraud. It makes fools of them.

Anyone with experience should have been suspicious of the headlines from the beginning. Within days the numbers collapsed. It turns out Whitley was using DPS figures going back at least 22 years. About 50,000 Texas immigrants a year become citizens. Almost immediately upwards of 20,000 names around the state had been verified as being citizens, having become naturalized or having been wrongly identified. Some counties, such as Waco’s McLennan County, quickly found that every single one listed was actually a citizen.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen wisely has held off instructing her staff to pull the records, one by one, of each of the 5,100 names the state sent and pay the postage for letters mandating that they prove their citizenship within 30 days, as the secretary of state had instructed.

“I’m old,” Callanen said Monday with a chuckle. “I remember a few years ago when they sent the ‘death match’ list.”

Immediately after sending out letters, her office started hearing from citizens who were surprised to learn that they were dead.

Three days after Callanen received the latest “voter fraud” list, she got a call from the secretary of state’s office telling her to hold off. And, oh, they already realized that one category on the list, with 556 names, was in error.

Abbott, for one, should have known better. When he was attorney general he declared an “epidemic” of voter fraud and spent millions on investigations. The result: 26 indictments, of which most were not illegal voters but illegal harvesters of mail-in votes.

Paxton, in the very press release quoted above, said, “From 2005-2017, the attorney general’s office prosecuted 97 defendants for numerous voter fraud violations.” That’s a whopping eight a year in a state with nearly 16 million registered voters. What’s more, many involved technical violations, not illegal voters.

But the myth persists, promoted from the bottom to the top, where President Trump insists he lost California only because millions voted illegally. Despite the collapse of a commission he appointed to prove massive fraud, he continues to repeat this and other falsehoods. No embarrassment.

Nor did Whitley display a hint of embarrassment last week when he was grilled by a state Senate committee weighing whether to give him the ratification he needs to keep his job. He couldn’t think of anything his office had done wrong.

In closing, I want to retell a story I told five years ago when I was doing a news program for KLRN. Shortly after I went to the Houston Chronicle in 2003, State Representative Talmadge Heflin, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, lost an election by 32 votes to a Vietnamese immigrant named Hubert Vo, who had never run for office before.

Heflin and his supporters were convinced that hordes of Vietnamese illegals had put Vo over the top. Heflin’s lawyer, a top GOP voting law specialist named Andy Taylor, said he had uncovered “deeply disturbing evidence of voter fraud and election irregularities.” He added: “Illegal votes were counted and legal votes were rejected.”

Taylor later presented his evidence to a special master, a Republican legislator, appointed by House Speaker Tom Craddick, also a Republican. The ruling after two days of testimony: “No evidence was presented that any illegal vote was made with knowledge of illegality or intent to violate the law.”

One noncitizen was found to have voted illegally. He wasn’t Vietnamese. He was a Norwegian named Henning Eilert-Olsen. As a legal resident he had applied for a driver’s license. Maybe it was his Scandinavian blue eyes that induced a clerk to give him a voter registration card. He dutifully filled it out, checking the “no” box on whether he was a citizen. When a voter registration card came in the mail, he assumed it meant he could vote.

I asked him if he minded telling me for whom he voted.

“Not at all,” he said. “Mr. Heflin.”

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.