Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr creative commons
Multiple courts have ruled that Texas' strict voter ID law, if allowed to go into effect this year, could keep about 600,000 registered voters away from the polls because they don't have any of the seven forms of ID required under the 2013 law. Even the most conservative federal appeals court in the country ruled that the law was, in practice, racist by disproportionately affecting black and Latino voters.
But university researchers
last year also found that mere confusion over Texas' voter ID rules kept people away from the polls who could have voted but mistakenly thought the new law blocked them from doing so. The study's lead author, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, largely blamed the state
for anemic and ineffective efforts to educate voters on the complicated new law. The study even seemed to suggest that confusion over voter ID may have suppressed turnout in South Texas' fiercely competitive 23rd Congressional District to such an extent that it could have actually affected the race.
Which is why it might be worth noting that the state is again being accused of confusing voters over the new voting rules that were ordered by federal district court Judge Nelva Ramos after the federal Fifth Circuit appeals court blocked Texas' voter ID law earlier this year, ruling that the law discriminates against minorities. Ramos' ordered the state to expand acceptable forms of ID allowed at the polls during the November general election. Under the new rules hashed out in court, people without acceptable ID can still vote if they sign an affidavit certifying they're a U.S. citizen and present some proof of residence, like a utility bill or a bank statement. Texas then hired some experts in crisis management (people who, as we've written in the past
, have handled PR for everyone from the tobacco industry to military dictators to the company responsible for the worst industrial disaster ever) as part of a $2.5 million "multi-faceted strategy to reach and educate voters."
Just as the state started to roll out educational materials to voters and poll workers, the U.S. Justice Department claimed it had found a problem. Judge Ramos' order said Texas must ensure its new rules allow "the opportunity for voters who do not possess" photo identification "and cannot reasonably obtain it to cast a regular ballot.” The DOJ and civil rights groups who sued the state (and won) over voter ID claimed Texas was effectively giving voters the wrong impression that they couldn't vote unless they'd exhausted every avenue to try to get an approved ID by omitting one very important word from the state's voter education materials: "reasonably." The feds called the state's voter education language "misleading and inaccurate" and out of line with Ramos' narrow order.
While this might all sound small, civil rights groups say the specific language is particularly important when you consider recent comments from Texas Republicans vowing to closely monitor sworn statements by voters without IDs and prosecute if they find anything fishy. As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Fox News last month
, “If you sign that affidavit and you lie about not being able to get a photo ID, you can be prosecuted for perjury.” Last month Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart told the Houston Press
his office would thoroughly vet and possibly even investigate voters who signed affidavits saying they didn't have ID.
On Tuesday, Ramos ordered Texas to change the voter ID language on its news releases, informational posters at polls and on government websites. Ramos also ordered the state to share copies any future documents and scripts for radio and TV ads with the Justice Department and the groups that sued the state.
By no means does this signal the end of political jockeying over voter ID in Texas ahead of one of the most divisive U.S. presidential elections ever. Paxton's office has said it plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this week, still seeking to implement the state's voter ID law in November. And even if that doesn't work, Republicans like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have already vowed to revive the issue and pass new voter ID restrictions when the legislature goes back into session next year.