Thursday, September 11, 2014

Texas Voter I.D. Trial

Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014 was the opening day of the U.S. District Court trial in Corpus Christi over whether Texas’ SB14 voter ID law is discriminatory.  The current voter discrimination suit was filed under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is the trial judge.

The law was already ruled discriminatory in August 2012 by another federal district court 3 judge panel under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That 2012 ruling was overturned after the Supreme Court in June 2013 effectively nullified Section 5 anti-discriminatory protections.  Just hours later, Texas announced that it would immediately implement its ID law.

Plaintiffs challenging the ID law in the current trial – represented by a team of over a dozen lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department, civil and voting rights groups, and private law firms – wrapped their case this week.

Lawyers for the State of Texas will open defense of the state voter ID law, Thursday. The defense is expected call only two witnesses and wrap up this week yet this week.

Judge Ramos is expected to take trial augments under consideration by week of September 22 after hearing closing arguments.

The question is whether Judge Ramos will rule before early voting starts on October 20th, for the November 4, 2014 election.

Plaintiffs argued a large number of Texans lack one of limited types of ID required to vote under the law; that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to lack ID; and that getting an ID can be onerous, especially for the poor.

The State of Texas does not dispute that a large number of Texans currently don’t have one of the few IDs required to vote.  The state admits that least 600,000 qualified voters do not have any of the required voter IDs. One estimate introduced by a plaintiff witness put the number of Texans who lack any of the required IDs at 1.2 million eligible voters. 

Another plaintiff witness said he’d calculated that for one low-income woman, getting the underlying documents needed to obtain a state ID card at a state Dept. of Public Safety (driver's license) office would cost $63.45—over a third of her monthly income.

Daniel Chatman, an urban planning expert at the University of California, Berkeley, testified that based on a detailed study he conducted, 11% of Texas’s African-Americans would face a 90-minute round trip journey to the nearest Dept. of Public Safety  office to obtain a voter ID card. For whites, the figure was just 3.3%. The difference, said Chatman, is almost entirely due to different rates of car ownership, since having to use public transportation adds significantly to the journey time.

Plaintiff lawyers and witnesses strongly challenged the State of Texas' main rationale for the law, that it’s needed to stop fraud. Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has conducted perhaps the closest analysis of voter fraud claims, testified that voter impersonation fraud—the only kind of fraud that the ID might stop—is vanishingly rare.

Minnite said there have been just four such cases in Texas since 2000—and it’s not clear that any of them would have been prevented by the ID law.

The state essential concedes that in elections from 2002 to 2014, more than 60 million votes were cast and there have been only two instances of in person voter fraud involving voter impersonation.

Main challenges to the ID law include:

...the law has retrogressive effect on Hispanic and African American voters based on three facts: (1) a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID; (2) the burdens associated with obtaining ID will weigh most heavily on the poor; and (3) racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.

...Over one in five eligible Texas voters who make $20,000 a year or less do not have a current photo ID that would be accepted under the voter ID law.

...According to undisputed U.S. Census data, the poverty rate in Texas is 25.8% for Hispanics and 23.3% for African Americans, compared to just 8.8% for whites. This means that the burdens of obtaining official documents required to obtain a "free" Texas voter ID card will almost certainly fall more heavily on minorities, a concern well recognized by those who work in minority communities.

…Undisputed census data shows that in Texas, 13.1% of African Americans and 7.3% of Hispanics live in households without access to a motor vehicle, compared with only 3.8% of whites.

…while a 200 to 250 mile trip to and from a DPS [Department of Public Safety] office would be a heavy burden for any prospective voter, such a journey would be especially daunting for the working poor. Poorer citizens, especially those working for hourly wages, will likely be less able to take time off work to travel to a DPS office—a problem exacerbated by the fact that wait times in DPS offices can be as long as three hours during busy months of the year. This concern is especially serious given that none of Texas’s DPS offices are open on weekends or past 6:00 PM, eliminating for many working people the option of obtaining an EIC [“election identification certificate”] on their own time. A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise to vote unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote. The same is true when a law imposes an implicit fee for the privilege of casting a ballot, like the $22 many would-be voters who lack the required underlying documentation will have to pay to obtain an EIC.

...Wealth or fee paying has…no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.”

…Significantly, Texas disputes none of the facts underlying the plaintiffs arguments against the law — not the $22 cost for a birth certificate, not the distance between DPS offices, not the poverty rates for minorities in Texas, not the disproportionate vehicle access rates.

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