Thursday, July 12, 2012

How The Texas Voter Photo I.D. Law Becomes A Poll Tax For Some

The Texas Voter Photo I.D. case currently before the federal Washington D.C. Circuit Court will decide whether Texas can enforce its year-old voter photo I.D. law. The U.S. Department of Justice contends the law will prevent from 795,955 to 1.4 million registered Latino and African-American voters from casting a ballot in the November General Election.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department or a federal court is required to pre-clear laws affecting voters before they go into effect in jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination -- and that includes Texas. Texas has the burden at trial to prove that its voter photo ID law, signed into law by Gov. Perry last year, does not have the purpose or effect to deny a minority citizen the right to vote. That federal court trial started on Monday, before a three-judge panel composed of two district court judges and an appeals court judge.

Originally set to go into effect on January 1, 2012, the Texas Photo I.D. Law (SB 14) would require voters to present one of a limited selection of government issued photo I.D. to election Judges in order to qualify to vote. The accepted forms of currently dated photo identification are: Department of Public Safety issued Texas driver's license, Texas election I.D., or personal identification card; Texas concealed handgun license; U.S. military I.D. card; U.S. citizenship certificate; or U.S. passport. The other forms of personal identification currently accepted for voter qualification could no longer be used under SB 14. SB 14 provides that people who do not have one of the prescribed photo I.D.'s may obtain a "free" Election Identification Card (EIC) from a Dept. of Public Safety (DPS) Driver's License office.

In opening arguments on Monday, Adam Mortara, an attorney for the State of Texas, told the DC Court three judge panel that the vast majority of registered voters already have a photo ID.

"This is a case about Texas' proposed implementation of one of the most popular voting reforms of the last 20 years, a common-sense requirement that when you show up to polls to vote, you prove you are who you say you are with a photo ID," said Adam Mortara of Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott. Mortara said showing a photo ID is part of routine life, from getting into a federal courthouse to riding on an airplane. The DOJ's evidence, Mortara said in his opening statement, is flawed and cannot be used to block the state from carrying out its identification law. Mortara in particular critiqued the work of Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University who found Hispanics and blacks in Texas are disproportionately lacking identification compared to white voters.

A DOJ lawyer, Elizabeth Westfall of the department's Civil Rights Division, said in her opening arguments that Texas "is unable to meet its burden" that the voter ID law will not have a retrogressive effect.

Ansolabehere, Westfall said, determined that at least 1.4 million potential voters [approximately 10 percent of all voting age citizens in Texas] lack any form of state-issued ID that is accepted under the law. "In fact, minority registered voters in Texas are two-thirds more likely than white registered voters to lack an allowable state ID," Westfall said. That disparity exists among recent voters and all registrants, she said.

While the State of Texas disputes the fact that up to 1.4 million, or even "just" 795,955 of all voting age citizens in Texas lack any form of state-issued ID accepted under the new I.D. law, there is still no disenfranchisement. Republicans for the state argue there is no disenfranchisement of those without I.D. because anyone can easily obtain a "free" EIC from a Texas DPS office.

The catch is that in order to obtain a “free" EIC from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), a person must take time to travel to a DPS office and present other government-issued documents mandated by the federal Real I.D. Act of 2005. The Federal Real I.D. Act, which turns state driver's licenses into a national identity card, adds additional barriers for everyone, particularly women of every age, to obtain or renew their driver's license. documents needed to obtain a “free" EIC include a passport, or a combination of documents, or a state certified birth certificate, or a certified copy of a court order indicating the applicant’s name and date of birth, and additional documents. Identification documents required to obtain a "free" EIC can cost considerable time and money to obtain. For example, obtaining a birth certificate in Texas costs $22 in order to vote -- and that amounts to a poll tax. For those who do not have a driver's license, and therefore don't own a car, getting to the DPS adds additional financial burdens that may, in some areas of Texas, be insurmountable -- and that, too, amounts to a poll tax.

In March, the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division refused to clear the Texas photo I.D. law, Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The department’s letter written by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez states that Texas did not meet its burden under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of showing that the law will not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters, and therefore the department objects to the Texas voter identification law. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote in a letter to Keith Ingram, the director of Texas’ elections division:

“As noted above, an applicant for an election identification certificate will have to travel to a driver’s license office. This raises three discrete issues. First, according to the most recent American Community Survey three-year estimates, 7.3 percent of Hispanic or Latino households do not have an available vehicle, as compared with only 3.8 percent of non-Hispanic white households that lack an available vehicle. Statistically significant correlations exist between the Hispanic voting-age population percentage of a county, and the percentage of occupied housing units without a vehicle.

Second, in 81 of the state’s 254 counties, there are no operational driver’s license offices. The disparity in the rates between Hispanics and non-Hispanics with regard to the possession of either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS is particularly stark in counties without driver’s license offices. According to the September 2011 data, 10.0 percent of Hispanics in counties without driver’s license offices do not have either form of identification, compared to 5.5 percent of non-Hispanics. According to the January 2012 data, that comparison is 14.6 percent of Hispanics in counties without driver’s license offices, as compared to 8.8 percent of non-Hispanics. During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles round trip in order to reach a driver’s license office. The legislature tabled amendments that would have, for example, provided reimbursement to voters who live below the poverty line for travel expenses incurred in applying for the requisite identification.

... Hispanic voters represent only 21.8 percent of the registered voters in the state, Hispanic voters represent fully 29.0 percent of the registered voters without such identification.

...Thus, 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.”

There are 34 Texas counties without a DPS office and 47 additional counties where DPS offices have been temporarily closed, according to documents furnished to the Department of Justice. Minorities make up a majority of the population in most of those counties. The line to get a driver’s license at one Houston location is so long, according to State Sen. Tommy Williams, that a guy called in a pizza order, got it delivered to him, and finished eating before he got to the front of the line.

Republicans argue the new law is needed to protect the sanctity of the ballot from unscrupulous voters, but they have yet to provide evidence that widespread fraud has occurred. Former Texas Republican Party political director Royal Masset estimated that a photo ID requirement would reduce Democratic turnout in Texas by 3 percent. Just last week Pennsylvania House of Representative, Mike Turzai said, with more than a hint of triumph that Pennsylvania's new Voter ID, modeled after Texas' I.D. law, "is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”

Voter photo ID laws such as SB 14 have been empirically demonstrated to drive down the number of votes cast for Democratic candidates by minorities, students, the poor and the elderly, who are less likely to carry a photo ID. Texas’ history of suppressing the rights of voters of color is long and painful. The new law employs a simple-minded as well as sophisticated tactic to suppress the minority vote and impose a new-era Jim Crow poll tax - as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP Convention audience this week.


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