By Jim Lamare
A three-judge panel of the Federal District Court of Washington, D.C., heard arguments this month concerning the legality of Texas’ Senate Bill 14, the voter identification law enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature last year.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice refused to clear the bill under its powers authorized by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Texas appealed that decision to the Washington, D.C., court.
SB 14 requires Texans to produce suitable personal identification to vote. “Suitable” is legislatively defined as one of the following photo IDs: a valid Texas driver’s license, an election identification certificate, a U.S. military ID, a U.S. citizenship certificate, a U.S. passport, or a license to carry a concealed handgun. If would-be voters lack any of these documents, they can go to a Department of Public Safety office to obtain, for free, a personal identification card. The DPS will issue this card once the applicant provides other documents, the principal one being a birth certificate.
Almost one-third of Texas’ 254 counties do not have such an office, necessitating for some a 120-mile road trip to the nearest DPS.
Until this year, presentation of a valid voter registration card would suffice. If a person did not have this card, a wide sampling of photo and non-photo forms of verifying one’s ID could ensure a ballot.
Why the change?
SB 14 is ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud. However, finding widespread patterns of irregular voting has been elusive.
More than 39 million ballots have been cast by Texans since 2004. By the count of Texas Attorney General Republican Greg Abbott – a staunch defender of SB 14 – only 62 cases of fraudulent voting have been recorded since 2002. Forty of those cases involved doctored mail-in ballots – an illegal act not covered by SB 14.
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein told Houston’s KHOU “that the attorney general has made the case for the plaintiffs. Voter fraud in this state by [his]account is small, if not infinitesimal.” Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County’s chief elections official, says SB 14 is “a law in search of a crime.”
If the law goes into effect, it will have impact.
How much depends on which expert is to be believed.
Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government at Harvard, argues that there are 1.5 to 1.9 million Texans who voted in recent elections but lack a valid driver’s license, personal id card or a permit to carry a handgun.
Hispanics are two-thirds more likely than whites to face this situation. To vote in the future, those affected must secure at their own expense the necessary documentation to obtain an SB 14-approved photo ID.
University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw, co-director of polling for Fox News and director of election studies for George Bush in 2000, surveyed a sample of registered Texas voters without a driver’s license.
Among this universe of 800,000, Shaw estimates that only 46,245 will be negatively affected by SB 14. Almost all surveyed — African American, Hispanic and white alike — have an SB 14-sanctioned ID, according to Shaw.
Critics of Shaw’s methods, especially as applied to the Hispanic sub-samples, express concern about how the samples were drawn (based on Spanish surname), the method of conducting the poll (by telephone), the reliability of the questions asked, the accuracy of responses and a very low response rate.
To interview 600 Hispanics in one study, 72,131 contacts were attempted. That is a strike rate of .008%, far below acceptable response rate standards in social science.
The court is expected to decide in August.
A ruling against Texas is likely to bring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, at which time the state will probably challenge the Voting Rights Act which empowers the federal government to vet and approve any changes to Texas’ electoral practices.
The VRA was extended to the Lone Star state because of its extensive historical record of inhibiting the voting rights of people of color.
A ruling in favor of SB 14 might result in its implementation in the November elections.
Although that should have little impact on Governor Romney’s strong chances of winning the presidential race in Texas, SB 14 might affect some congressional and state legislative races.
(Dr. Jim Lamare is the author of Texas Politics: Economics, Power and Policy).