The Justice Department today blocked Texas’s new voter ID law, which is among the toughest in the country, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, noting 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.”
The data provided by the state of Texas on two different occasions shows that Hispanic voters are more likely than white voters to lack the ID now required to cast a ballot. The law was clearly intended to benefit Republicans; for example, a handgun permit is considered an acceptable form of ID but a university ID is not.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez summarized the department’s findings:
“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. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.
The state has provided no data on whether African-American or Asian registered voters are also disproportionately affected by S.B. 14.”
A separate analysis by the Texas secretary of state found that 18 percent of registered voters across Texas lack state government-issued photo IDs to match their voter registration cards, according to the Houston Chronicle. Those numbers were highest in counties with a significant minority population.
For those voters who lack the proper ID, obtaining the correct documentation can be a difficult task. 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 writes. That expenditure can be rightly construed as a poll tax, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited.
Moreover, getting that ID from the DMV is not as easy as you’d think. Hispanics in Texas are twice as likely as whites to not have a car. 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. “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.
In addition, the state has undertaken no voter education effort to make its citizens aware of the new law, nor has it trained poll workers to familiarize them with the election changes.
“Should this legislation ever see the light of day, it would immediately become the strictest voter qualification law since the poll tax,” says State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “Worse yet, photo identification requirements for voters drastically affect the electoral participation of the poor, the elderly, and the transient, which means those who need their government’s ear most will be the last to be heard.”
The voter ID law is part of a broader effort by Texas Republicans to suppress the minority vote in a state that is becoming increasingly diverse. The League of Women Voters called the state’s redistricting plan, which favored white Republicans even though Hispanic and African-Americans comprised the bulk of population growth, “by far the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year.”
Texas is the third state where DOJ has blocked a discriminatory voting law this election cycle. In December, DOJ objected to South Carolina’s voter ID law, since “minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised,” Perez wrote.
The department also recently opposed Florida’s restriction of voter registration drives and curtailment of early voting. Minority voters were twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through voter registration drives and to use early voting in 2008.
A three-judge US district court panel in DC will now decide whether the laws should move forward. DOJ’s efforts are but one part of a broader pushback against the GOP’s war on voting rights. A Wisconsin circuit court judge recently issued a temporary injunction against the state’s new voter ID law until a trial next month decides whether the law violates the state constitution.
Yet Republicans are intent with moving forward with new voter restrictions. Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting, and the first in 2012.
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback.