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Like It or Not, Voter ID Is Not Working

Half a million registered Texas voters lack ID now required to vote, but just 653 state-issued cards have been dispensed over three years.

REUTERS/Chris Keane

Welp, we told you that there would be a lot of confusion at the polls on Super Tuesday in states with new voting guidelines in place. There was. The Election Protection group, which fields complaints from voters, reports that the bulk of election-day problems were in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. Many of those concerned new voter ID rules, as was also the case in Virginia, Think Progress reports.

As CityLab noted Tuesday, those states are among the Super Tuesday states with the densest populations of black and Latino voters—the people most likely to get unnecessarily harassed by voter ID laws. It is important to recognize that these states were all once covered by a special section of the Voting Rights Act that provided extra protection from election policies that overburden or discriminate against voters of color. That section was effectively dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

This year marks the first presidential election unfolding without the full sentinel effects of the Voting Rights Act. And hence, it’s no surprise that black and Latino voters are running into problems, especially around new voter ID restrictions. Defenders (and some CityLab commenters) maintain that showing photo identification to vote should not be much of a hurdle. In a nation where everybody has photo ID, it shouldn’t. But we don’t live in that nation. There are millions of people who don’t have driver’s licenses or passports for lots of reasons, including that they may not drive or don’t fly.

It is true that many states with these voter ID stipulations do, in fact, help the ID-less out by providing specially made photo identification cards free of charge. A huge problem with that, however, is that they are actually not free. To get most state-issued voter ID cards, people are still required to produce documents including birth certificates or social security cards, which can cost quite a bit to obtain if you don’t have these documents. Many elderly African Americans who were born in the Jim Crow South, when hospitals often refused black patients, don’t have these otherwise common forms. Add in the costs of traveling to a DMV office (if your community even has one) to get an ID card, and you suddenly might be paying more to vote than black people were charged under the Jim Crow-era poll tax system. That’s no good for people living on low income or fixed wages.

(Courtesy Leah Hubbard, MPA Candidate 2016,
University of Southern California)

Another huge problem with state-issued voter ID cards: States suck at getting them to the people who need them most. Such has been the case in Texas, which has chosen to move forward with a voter ID law despite the fact that 500,000 to 600,000 registered voters don’t have ID, and that federal courts have ruled that the law discriminates against black and Latino voters. Texas was nice enough to soften its law by creating state-issued voter ID cards for those with no driver’s license or passport. But it wasn’t kind enough to actually educate its local election supervisors, or its voters, about how to get them or use them.

As the Texas Observer reports, the state has dispensed just 653 election identification certificates (or EICs, as the voter ID cards are called) over the three years they’ve been available. This means that either Texas has done a horrible job of advertising these things, or the people who need them aren’t able to get to DMV offices to obtain them. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department initially struck down the state’s voter ID law in 2012 because almost a third of its 254 counties had no DMV offices, and Latinos with no ID were far more likely to live in those DMV-less counties than whites.  

Equally troubling is that, even if some Texans did get their hands on the EIC voting cards, many county election officials can’t even recognize them. The Texas Observer reporters surveyed 46 Texas counties about the cards and found that “many elections administrators had little to no familiarity with the ID, and some expressed surprise that anyone would inquire about it.”

Writes the Observer’s Hannah McBride:

Employees at three of the counties we called—Kinney, LaSalle and Lynn counties—said they had never heard of EICs, and couldn’t direct us to place to learn more. (DPS has information on its website.) LaSalle County has issued three EICs since 2013, according to DPS data.

“About what?” said an employee at Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office, when the Observer called to ask about obtaining an EIC. “I have no idea. We do vehicle registration here—I’ve never heard of that.”

Some county officials noted that few, if any, people had requested one.

“We’ve had the equipment back here for two years but we’ve never had to use it,” said an employee of Jack County, population 9,000.

Employees in other counties suggested obtaining other forms of ID or going to a different county.

Texas is hardly alone in this kind of cluelessness. Virginia also produces “free” ID cards for people who lack them. But, as of last summer, it had only distributed about 4,400 of these. That’s better than Texas, but it hardly meets the needs of the 197,000 registered voters who lack an acceptable form of photo ID for elections.

Alabama has also struggled with getting its “free” state-issued ID cards out. As in Texas and Virginia, the cards were created so that those without ID could comply with new voting requirements. A little over 5,000 of those voter cards were issued before the 2014 midterm elections, which was far below the state’s goal of 12,000. But it’s difficult to see how those paltry numbers will be helpful in a state where upwards of 250,000 registered voters lack ID. The closing of DMV offices in black communities around the state hardly helps this.

(NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund)

The same problems arose in Pennsylvania when it tried to enforce a voter ID law before the 2012 elections. Facing lawsuits over the law’s legality, the state scrambled to get its free voter ID cards out through its own hapless DMV offices. But like Texas, it also fell far short of meeting the need, which led state courts to ultimately dismantle the law altogether.

Voter ID laws simply don’t work, as one South Carolina voter found out when poll workers told him he was dead even as he stood alive before them showing his photo ID. Not that this should need repeating, but the very thing these laws are supposed to address—voter impersonation fraud—is not a thing at all. These laws only make voting more difficult, though some have no problem with that.  

Voting is too important of a duty to try to squeeze in between work shifts or classes and hope for the best when you arrive at a polling place. You know it’s bad when Harvard students are complaining about voter ID. In Wisconsin, another voter ID-beleaguered state, the One Wisconsin Institute just filed a lawsuit over the state’s “free ID” system because it’s already seeing the DMV problems faced before in Pennsylvania, Texas, and beyond.   

Despite all of this, Missouri is lately all in its feelings about voter ID, hoping to give it another try even after it’s been smacked down umpteen times by courts in the past. Perhaps all the bad news about African Americans lacking voting power in Ferguson and elsewhere around the state hasn’t stung hard enough. Missouri should take a close examination at these other failed voter ID experiments and quit while it can.

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