Photo: Eric Thayer / Getty Images
In an epic showdown that dates back to the 1960s civil rights era, Texas was in court the week of July 9 to defend its new voter identification law that the Department of Justice says does not pass muster under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.The Texas law, known as SB 14, requires that voters present government-issued photo identification when they cast their votes. Because of their history of racial discrimination and civil rights abuses, laws passed by Texas and other southern states that affect the voting process are still subject to “preclearance” by the DOJ under Section 5 of the VRA. In March, the DOJ found that SB 14 would have possible negative effects on minority voters, so it filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington DC.
Guns OK, Student IDs Not
The acceptable forms of ID under the law seem odd at first glance: gun licenses but not state university student IDs are acceptable. Until you take a look at what’s behind SB 14. Republicans, who passed the law with a super-majority last year, say it’s needed to combat voter impersonation. But Democrats say that there is no evidence of such fraud in Texas, and that the law could disenfranchise up to 1.5 million voters in the state.
“It’s basically a solution in search of a problem,” says Andy Brown, a lawyer who heads up his own firm and serves as the chair of the Travis County Democratic Party in Austin. “There is not a problem in Texas with in-person voter fraud.”
But you wouldn’t know that from the way the law was passed. “This new photo ID law was passed in a highly unusual and contentious process,” says Ian Vandewalker, counsel in the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan centre for Justice, which had urged the DOJ to block the law, arguing that it could prevent hundreds of thousands of minorities in Texas from voting since they do not have one of the few forms of ID required.
“To get the legislation through in a hurry, the legislature and the governor bypassed the normal legislative process. The governor declared the photo ID bill emergency legislation, allowing it to be voted on at the beginning of the legislative session instead of waiting for the 60 days usually required for debate on legislation,” Vandewalker explains. “The Texas House of Representatives created a special committee just to hear the photo ID bill. The Senate suspended its rule requiring two-thirds of senators to agree to hear a bill only for voter ID bills. With these changes, the photo ID bill passed quickly, largely along partisan lines, over the strong objections of minority and Democratic lawmakers.”
“Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, has tried to find voter fraud in Texas, but he has only come up with one indictment of someone trying to impersonate a voter,” says Brown. “Thirteen million people voted in 2008 and 2010 in Texas, and there was one case with an indictment. The real result would be, at least in Travis County, 25,000 people who are registered to vote have no [acceptable form of] ID.”
The law unfairly burdens elderly, low-income and minority voters, who historically vote Democrat, says Brown, because they are more likely to have full-time jobs, to lack transportation, and to lack extra funds to get a new drivers licence, all of which make it much more difficult to visit a Department of Public Safety office during working hours and get the required ID. Republicans, not Democrats, are much more likely to be gun licence holders in Texas, he points out, thus the law’s surprising inclusion of concealed handgun licenses as acceptable ID.
What’s really at stake, at least in a town like Austin, is a 4.3 per cent swing, based on the percentage of registered voters who don’t have the appropriate form of ID under the law, Brown continues. The capital as well as other big cities in Texas, like Houston and Dallas, still see fierce competition between Democrats and Republicans for seats in the legislature, “so even a 4.3 per cent margin would have a huge effect on the balance of power in Texas,” he says.
Both Brown and Vandewalker predict that in the case, State of Texas v. Holder, the three-judge panel in DC will rule in favour of the DOJ, striking the law. But Brown says Abbott has already promised to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if he loses – another strategic political move: “The Republicans would like the entire Voting Rights Act to be thrown out, and they see this as a vehicle to get rid of it.”
What You Can Do
Texas is not the only state to make changes in voting laws that could result in the disenfranchisement of large groups of voters.
“The Texas law is part of a wave of restrictive voting laws passed in the last two years that will make it harder for many eligible voters to participate in elections,” says Vandewalker. “Voter ID laws are one example — 11 states passed new ID laws, and Texas’s is one of the most restrictive. In Pennsylvania, the Republican House Majority Leader said the state’s new voter ID law will ‘allow Governor Romney to win the state.'”
If you’re worried about whether you’ll be turned away in your next state or local election because you don’t have the right form of ID, there are some things you can do. “Make sure to register to vote, and vote against people who would pass laws like this in the first place,” Brown suggests. “Also, look for ways to find state-issued IDs that are easier to get.” In Austin, Democrats are rallying for a push to get voter registration cards to simply include photos.
“Voters who believe they are being discriminated against can call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, which is a nonpartisan hotline that allows voters to report problems and get information about their rights,” adds Vandewalker. “Voters should also find out the number of their local election office, which will have answers to common questions. The website www.canivote.org has information about voting requirements across the nation.”
If you’re worried your civil rights are being violated by your state’s voter ID laws, you can also contact a civil rights lawyer on Lawyers.com in your state.
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