In Arizona, they may tell brown folks “show me your papers,” but in Texas everyone is about to be asked to show something else if they want to exercise their most basic of constitutional rights.
It’s a photo we’re talking about — a photo ID to be specific. And, assuming that the 101-member Republican super-majority in the Texas House doesn’t collectively come down with a bad case of dengue fever in the next 30 days, on January 1, 2012, you’ll have to present specific types of photo identification in order to vote in future Texas elections.
While there are some exceptions within the legislation passed by the Texas Senate on a party-line vote last week, the law will apply to the vast majority of Texas voters. If you are over 70, you are off the hook — at least until the Texas House gets around to tweaking the bill. And, if you are indigent and can’t afford a photo ID — or of a religion that does not allow photographs taken for identification purposes (Listen up Amish and Old Order Mennonites, this one’s for you!) — you can cast a provisional ballot that could later be counted by signing an affidavit asserting your poverty or right to be pictorially vague. Again, this is until the burgeoning Tea Party Caucus in the Texas House has its way with the bill in the coming weeks.
Assuming that the vast majority of the Senate’s amendments to the bill stand (only seven of 41 amendments were adopted, most of them proposed by Democrats trying to do pesky stuff like make voting easier on the poor, recently divorced women, and minorities — which Republicans would have no part of), voters will need to present a driver’s license or ID card issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety, a U.S. Military ID card, a certificate of U.S. Citizenship containing your photo, or a concealed handgun license issued by DPS. The first three can’t have been expired for more than 60 days at the time you vote.
Experts, however, caution that the proposal the Senate passed will have a tremendous impact on the poor, people in some rural communities, and minorities.
John Tanner, former chief of the Voting Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division during the last Bush administration, says Texas offers unique impediments that will block voters from obtaining photo identification that states like Indiana and Georgia — where voter ID laws passed and were deemed constitutional by the courts — did not have.
“I think the key in Texas is the distance involved,” Tanner said. “In Texas, the DPS offices are, if I understand it, as much as 170 miles from people. In South Texas, which is predominantly Latino, you have as a prime example Presidio County. The county seat is Marfa, but it is 100 miles from the city of Presidio, and there is no real reason for anyone to go to Marfa; it’s a special trip,” he says.
He notes that for urban residents trying to get to a DPS office by public transportation — or, god forbid, walking along a freeway toward the local DPS office — is time consuming and yet another impediment placed on the poor, working poor, and the elderly or disabled.
Tanner also cautions that it’s highly likely not all DPS offices will provide the language services that are necessary to assist people attempting to get their ID. “People forget that most of these people who don’t speak English are citizens, though many weren’t born in the U.S.,” he said, noting that the language test for citizenship is very simple and far different from conversing in the bureaucratic legalese necessary to obtain an ID.
Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group specializing in voter rights and election law who has this year been active in fighting voter ID legislation in Missouri, says that the impediments to getting a photo ID — even if the ID is provided for free — may be too much for some of society’s most vulnerable citizens.
As Texas Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, pointed out during a debate last week, voters could face other significant impediments — especially women who have been married or divorced and have names different than those on their birth certificate. Leiberman concurs, noting, “Anyone who has attempted to renew their driver’s license knows the bureaucratic hassle that obtaining these kinds of documents can require. We have people respond to these arguments saying, well, $15 dollars, who can’t afford that? But, the people most likely to be affected by this legislation are people who may be poor or otherwise don’t have the means to obtain it. … Fifteen dollars can provide milk for a family of four for a week.”
In terms of the impossible, Lieberman points to evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who have made their new, permanent homes in Texas. “In some cases, these people’s birth certificates were destroyed in a flood. It is impossible for them to obtain,” she said.
Ultimately, the state’s voter ID legislation is more of a problem searching for a solution than a legitimate concern. Tanner points out that complaints about groups like ACORN filing false or incomplete registration cards is an issue with the voter registration process. Voter ID legislation, however, is designed to address voter impersonation, not the registration process. Instead of making it more difficult to cast a ballot, both agree that the state should look toward other measures — like allowing people to be instantly and electronically registered to vote when they apply for state assistance like food stamps for which identity verification is required. •