Friday, July 22, 2016

Fixing Texas Discriminatory Voter ID Law

This week, after a Federal Appeals Court ruled that the Texas Voter ID law discriminated against minorities, there is a new, equally vexing question: how to fix it.

The Appellate Court’s decision kept the law in place but instructed a lower court judge to come up with procedures to minimize the law’s effect on those who do not have an approved form of Government-issued Photo ID or who face hurdles in easily obtaining one, many of whom are black or Hispanic.

One option is allowing voter-registration cards to be used as ID. Those cards are mailed to voters and do not have a photograph, and might be more readily available to an impoverished voter than a Government-issued photo ID. Another option is expanding the list of acceptable IDs to include Student IDs or GSvernment-employee IDs. And yet another possible solution involves having the state exempt the poor from having to show a Photo ID to vote, an exception modeled on Indiana’s Voter ID law.

Election law experts and opponents of Voter ID restrictions cautioned, however, that softening the effect of voter restrictions is more easily ordered by a court than accomplished in reality.

“These softening measures work better in theory than in practice,” said Richard L. Hasen, an Election Law expert and a Law Professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Voters don’t understand what their rights are, poll workers don’t always understand, and there’s not adequate publicity about the options.”

Many Texas voters who cast Provisional ballots because of ID-related problems, some have out-of-state driver’s licenses instead of Texas driver’s licenses, never return after Election Day with a proper ID. Their votes are never officially counted as a result. In Cameron County's Brownsville, 18 voters cast ID-related Provisional ballots across three elections in March 2014, November 2014 and November 2015. Only one later had their vote counted, while the other 17 let their ballots expire by leaving their ID issue unresolved. In Bexar County 's San Antonio, 38 voters who had an ID problem cast Provisional ballots in those elections. Only five returned to show the proper ID. The other 33 never followed through, and their votes did not count.

On Wednesday, the Federal Appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled that the State’s Voter ID law discriminated against blacks and Hispanics, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The court ordered a Federal judge in Corpus Christi, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, who oversaw a trial in 2014, to fashion new Voter ID procedures in time for the November election.

With that vote fast approaching, the Fifth Circuit majority wrote that it would be “untenable to permit a law with a discriminatory effect to remain in operation for that election.” Complicating matters, the court did not toss out the law, which is known as Senate Bill 14 or S.B. 14. The Appellate judges wrote that Judge Ramos must take into account the Texas Legislature’s desire to protect against voter fraud in fixing the problem.

“Clearly, the Legislature wished to reduce the risk of in-person voter fraud by strengthening the forms of identification presented for voting,” the court wrote. “Simply reverting to the system in place before S.B. 14’s passage would not fully respect these policy choices — it would allow voters to cast ballots after presenting less secure forms of identification like utility bills, bank statements or paychecks.”

Judge Ramos has asked all sides to submit proposed remedies by Aug. 5 and has set a hearing for Aug. 17.

Which IDs are allowed at the polling booth, and what happens when a voter shows up at the polls without one of the approved types, continues to confuse voters. One study by researchers at the University of Houston and Rice University found that in one Congressional District in 2014, the majority of registered voters who took part in the survey and claimed not to have voted because they lacked a proper ID did actually have one. They appeared to sit out the election because they mistakenly thought they did not have the appropriate ID.

In Texas, some of the law’s critics said that while none of the remedies might be perfect, their effect would be significant. Experts testified during the 2014 trial that 1.2 million eligible Texas voters lacked a form of Government-issued photo ID accepted by the law, and many of them were black or Hispanic.

“This is the first time that the voters have had the upper hand in a long time,” said Marc Veasey, a Texas Congressman and Democrat who is a plaintiff in the suit challenging the law.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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