November has been month full of “oops” moments for Texas Republicans.
Not only were their illegal maps redrawn by a San Antonio Federal court last week, but lost in the redistricting news was the story about the refusal by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to pre-clear the strict photo ID legislation that Texas Republicans passed during the 2011 legislative session. Since July of this year, the DOJ has twice asked the Texas Secretary of State’s office (SOS) for additional information, including the number of registered voters who may be unable to comply with its requirements. At issue are about 600,000 registered Texas voters who may not have a state-issued license or ID. If the SOS does not provide the data, implementation of the bill can be halted.
For those not familiar with the term “pre-clearance,” it means that, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, changes to Texas’ election laws must be reviewed to ensure that the laws do not have discriminatory effects. Immediately following the end of last session, several voting rights advocacy groups sent letters to the DOJ stating that the new law will disenfranchise many Texas voters, including seniors, college students, the disabled, and ethnic and racial minorities. The restrictive nature of the bill defies common sense. For example, a college student in Texas who holds an out-of-state driver’s license, but is registered to vote on campus will not be able to use that driver’s license or even their college photo ID to vote. Even worse, a Korean war veteran who no longer drives and does not have a government-issued photo ID such as a valid passport or concealed handgun license will not be allowed to vote with their voter registration card, despite the fact that his service to his country was supposed to ensure that very right for his fellow Americans.
I have always argued that any photo ID law contain vote-saving provisions ensuring no duly-registered Texas voter is left behind. In Idaho, among the reddest of red states, the photo ID law allows duly registered citizens without photo ID to issue an affidavit under penalty of perjury in order to vote. In Florida, the Republican photo ID law allows voters without photo ID to cast a ballot that undergoes a signature match (like we do with mail-in ballots in Texas). During the debate on the House floor, I offered amendments based on these models, but they were rejected.
At the risk of saying, “I told you so,” it comes as no surprise to those of us who predicted that the DOJ would take issue with the more onerous provisions of this legislation. During the house debate, I also offered an amendment that would have delayed enactment of the strict photo ID law until the SOS had furnished the very type of data that the DOJ is requesting today. Disturbingly, no voter impact analysis had been conducted and, during the debate on this bill, I introduced studies suggesting that between 150,000 and 500,000 registered voters in Texas do not have the kind of photo ID that would be required to vote. As it turns out, I was too conservative in my estimates, and in fact we now know that up to 600,000 Texans may not be able to cast a regular ballot under the new law.
You would think that, before pushing for this legislation, the authors would have asked how the bill adversely affects Texans’ right to vote. What was their acceptable threshold for disenfranchisement? Was it 100, 100,000, or 600,000 Texas voters? To put 600,000 voters in context-that’s about the number of people who live in each of the states of Vermont and Wyoming. It seemed as though Texas Republicans never really wanted to answer that question. Despite the studies predicting that the bill would adversely affect the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Texans, undoubtedly among them thousands of Texas Republicans, the authors of the bill simply ignored these inconvenient data points.
Some have suggested that Texas Republicans knew about the 600,000 voters all along and this is a cynical and manipulative ploy to maintain partisan control of state government. I have a great deal of respect for many of my colleagues, including the bill authors, and would like to think otherwise, but the restrictive nature of the bill just doesn’t make sense.
What has become clear to me is that this legislation is not intended to deal with voter fraud — in fact, the only kind of voter fraud that regularly occurs, mail-in ballot fraud, is not touched by the photo ID legislation. A multi-year investigation by the Texas Attorney General has borne out that impersonation of a voter at the ballot box is extremely rare in the state of Texas. The real problem is not voter impersonation, it’s that too few people are voting. In the 2010 mid-term general elections, Texas was dead last among the 50 states in registered voter participation.
As legislators, we need to ensure that fundamental individual rights are protected. If the DOJ does not pre-clear the strict photo-ID bill, we will get another shot at this legislation. And if we do, we need to act carefully and can’t ignore the 600,000.
Rafael Anchia is the Texas State Representative for District 103 in North Texas.