This week the state of Texas will try to persuade a federal court in Washington to uphold its voter ID law. The facts, however, are not on Texas’s side.
In March the Justice Department blocked the state’s voter ID law, saying it violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minority voters. DOJ found that “over 600,000 registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by [the Department of Public Safety]—and that a disproportionate share of those registered voters are Hispanic.”
Wrote Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez:
We conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification.
In court today, the Justice Department argued that the number of voters without ID is, in fact, double what the state estimated. “At least 1.4 million registered voters in Texas lack any form of state-issued ID accepted under [the law], and those voters are disproportionately Hispanic and black,” said DOJ lawyer Elizabeth Westfall.
Hispanics in Texas, who vote solidly Democratic, are not only more likely to lack ID compared to white voters, but will have a harder time obtaining the voter ID required by the state. There are DMV offices in only eighty-one of the state’s 254 counties. Not surprisingly, counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the right ID. Hispanics in Texas are also twice as likely as whites to not have a car. “During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles roundtrip in order to reach a driver’s license office,” wrote DOJ.
The law also places a significant burden on low-income residents. Texas is required to provide a free ID to voters, but an applicant must possess supporting documentation in order to qualify. “If a voter does not possess any of these documents, the least expensive option will be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter’s birth certificate,” DOJ noted. That expenditure can be rightly construed as a poll tax, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited.
Texas Republicans, as in other states, claim the law is needed to combat so-called “voter fraud.” Governor Rick Perry said the state had “multiple cases of voter fraud”—even though there were just five complaints of voter impersonation in Texas during the 2008 and 2010 elections out of 13 million votes cast. The real purpose of the voter ID law, which passed the state legislature at the beginning of 2011 as “emergency” legislation, is to benefit Republicans. For example, a handgun permit is considered an acceptable form of ID but a university ID is not. The law is yet another way Texas Republicans are trying to dilute the Democratic-leaning youth and minority vote in the state. (In the 2008 election, Barack Obama won just 26 percent of the white vote in Texas, but 63 percent from Hispanics and 98 percent from African-Americans. He beat John McCain among 18-to-29-year-olds in Texas but lost among every other age group.)
Texas has the dubious distinction of being the only place where the DOJ has blocked the state’s redistricting plan and its voter ID law, for diminishing the ability of minority voters to participate in the political process. Hispanics and African-Americans accounted for 80 percent of Texas’s booming population growth between 2000–10, yet the redistricting plan passed by Texas Republicans last year actually decreased the number of seats in Congress and the state legislature where minority voters will be able to elect a candidate of their choice. As a result, white Republicans, although now a demographic minority in the state, will be able to retain a huge political majority for the next decade. The League of Women Voters called it “by far the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year.” (The Texas redistricting map also has yet to be precleared in federal court.)
If a three-judge federal court panel rules against the state’s voter ID law, Texas has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination to clear any voting changes with the federal government to make sure they do not adversely impact minority voters. Attorney General Eric Holder has called Section 5 the “keystone of our voting rights.” (Texas has lost more Section 5 enforcement suits than any other state.) Already, Republicans in four states (Alaska, Arizona, Florida and South Carolina) and two local jurisdictions (in Alabama and North Carolina) are challenging the constitutionality of Section 5. A case originating in Shelby County, Alabama, is likely to reach the Supreme Court this year or next. According to a study by Columbia University law professor Nate Persily, “there have been more challenges to the Voting Rights Act in the past two years than in the previous 45 years combined,” reports Reuters. The Texas Republican Party platform goes even further, calling for repeal of the entire Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Yet the wave of restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans since the 2010 election proves that the Voting Rights Act is as important as it ever was. Texas, in many ways, is emblematic of how conservatives are responding to an increasingly diverse electorate by passing laws that dilute minority voting rights. Texas Congressman Charlie Gonzales, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, calls the state’s redistricting plan and voter ID law “exhibits A and B as to why Texas needs scrutiny under Section 5.”
Addendum: I discussed Texas’s voter ID law and other voting rights news on Democracy Now! this morning