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How is Texas voter ID law affecting poor, minorities? Center tracks impact (+video)

With early voting under way in Texas, reports compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice indicate that some voters are having trouble satisfying the state's new voter ID law.

Dallas resident Olester McGriff saw his driver's license expire in 2008. Mr. McGriff had a kidney transplant and can no longer drive, so he didn't renew the license. As a result, voting in Texas this election has been a long and arduous process for him, as well as other Texans, according to on-the-ground reports.

When he tried to get a new ID this summer, McGriff was turned away at two locations. He couldn't complete the transaction at the first ID office he visited because it is outside Dallas County, and when he visited another office closer to his home, he was told they were out of IDs and that he would have to come back another day.

Traveling is difficult for McGriff because of his health, and he needed a ride from an election volunteer to reach a site for early voting. McGriff brought with him his expired driver’s license, his birth certificate, his voter registration card, and other documentation, but none were sufficient under Texas’ new law, which requires a valid and government-issued photo ID to vote.

McGriff was eventually able to cast an absentee ballot, despite poll workers not informing him he is eligible for an absentee ballot on the grounds of disability. Still, his case is one of many examples of how the tighter voter ID law in Texas is already affecting voting in this year's midterm elections.

The Brennan Center for Justice, part of the New York University School of Law, has been compiling stories of actual voters, including McGriff, and the difficulties they've had voting in this year's election. The stories illustrate two main challenges the law has created for Texas voters: first, affording and securing identification you may have lost or never had, and second, trying to get help from election officials so you understand and can satisfy the new rules.

Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, says the stories from polling stations across Texas this week reinforce claims that the center made in a lawsuit challenging the new voter ID law. The center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House, and the law was struck down by a district court judge on Oct. 9. Two days later, however, a panel for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary injunction against the district court ruling – a move subsequently OK'd by the US Supreme Court.

The upshot is that the voter ID law will be in effect for the early voting period and on Election Day.

"This [law] was going to have a disenfranchising effect," Ms. Pérez says. "This was going to hit minority and poor voters the hardest."

According to testimonies collected by reporters on the ground, confusion at polling places appears to be a challenge for voters and polling officials alike. Pérez says the state has done "a dreadful job" of educating the public about the new law.

"Broadly speaking, our poll workers always need more training. It’s a tough job, and they have a bazillion different scenarios they can encounter," says Pérez.

"The vast majority of poll workers in Texas are doing the best that they can," she adds. "[But] the training is limited, the laws change, and we just don’t resource our elections enough."

Texas Secretary of State Nandita Berry oversees elections in the state. Her communications director, Alicia Pierce, says their office has embarked on a comprehensive statewide voter education campaign to make sure voters are familiar with how the new law works.

"We’ve worked very hard to make sure that if any Texan wants to vote, they have the information to do so," Ms. Pierce says. "Our poll workers have been trained and have been getting ready for this for quite a while."

She adds that while there have been reports of "isolated incidents of people who were unsure about what to bring to the polls," the state is seeing turnout similar to that of the last midterm elections in 2010.

Voting with a photo ID was an option prior to the law going into effect in 2013, Pierce notes, "so the majority of Texan voters were already using a photo ID to vote."

Texas politicians have said the voter ID law was passed to reduce incidences of voter fraud. A review of 66 voting irregularities in Texas since 2004, however, found that only four of the cases involved someone illegally casting a ballot at a polling place where a picture ID would have prevented it. 

Texas is not the only state requiring government-issued photo ID to vote this year. States with the same requirements as Texas' include quadrennial battleground states and states with tight races this year, including Georgia and Kansas. North Carolina and Wisconsin have passed strict photo ID laws, but they are not in effect this year. Thirteen states require a non-photo ID to vote, and 17 states don't require any identification at all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Photo ID laws have been criticized by the Obama administration and a number of civil rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union said the new laws "have a disproportionate and unfair impact on low-income individuals, racial and ethnic minority voters, students, senior citizens, voters with disabilities and others who do not have a government-issued ID or the money to acquire one."

More than 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo identification, according to research cited by the ACLU. A quarter of African-American citizens of voting age don't have government-issued photo ID, compared with 8 percent of white citizens of voting age, according to the ACLU. And 6 million senior citizens, or 18 percent of Americans over age 65, don't have government-issued photo ID.

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