DOJ Texas Voter ID Ruling Is No Surprise Given State’s Faulty ‘Colorblind’ Policies

Mar 13, 2012

It was no surprise that the Department of Justice blocked Texas’s photo voter ID law yesterday. Texas Republicans’s reaction was also no surprise. They’re pissed, though it’s hard to believe they are really shocked.

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith: "This is an abuse of executive authority and an affront to the citizens of Texas. It’s time for the Obama administration to learn not to mess with Texas."

Like South Carolina, Texas was a state subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for its history of voter discrimination against African Americans. This means Texas needs clearance from DOJ to institute any new voter laws so their discriminatory past is never revisited. Texas’s photo voter ID law was rejected due to the discriminatory effect it would have on Hispanic voters, given that a significantly greater portion of them lack ID and lack the means to obtain ID, meaning the law amounts to a poll tax.

Hardly a plot twist. In fact moving forward, let’s agree now that there will be more states that pass photo voter ID laws, and more rejections from DOJ or courts in at least some of those cases. Here’s what will follow:

  1. Organizations fighting to protect voting rights will applaud the blocks, citing that certain populations would be disenfranchised under voter ID laws, and in most cases the data will support them.

  2. Republicans will cry foul saying that "voter fraud" compels the state to have voter ID laws. In most if not all cases the data will not support them.

  3. Some Republicans will say that the Obama administration is impeding on states’ rights while other Republicans will hint that Democrats are trying to steal the November 2012 elections. Those same Republicans will push to have voter ID laws reinstated by the November 2012 elections.

The Details in Texas

This DOJ ruling was not a surprise to Texas. Texas sued the federal government last year in anticipation of being rejected. Nonetheless, Texas Republicans were appalled by DOJ’s decision yesterday. Sen. John Cornyn said it "reeks of politics," which is, at best, dishonest. Texas understood it needed clearance under the Voting Rights Act as a covered jurisdiction. It also knew what it had to do to make its case for why the voter ID should fly.

But when it came time to supply the numbers requested by DOJ to make an empirical decision about the law, Texas lunched. They supplied two sets of numbers of registered Hispanic voters thought to lack photo ID without bothering to reconcile either.

Wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez to Texas’s director of elections Keith Ingram, "The state has not provided an explanation for the disparate results. More significantly, it declined to offer an opinion on which of the two data sets is more accurate."

DOJ’s decision was made not because of political reasons, but because Texas decided not to cooperate.

At the conservative Heritage Foundation, the major fundraiser and think-tank for suppressing voting rights, research fellow Hans von Spakovsky blogged his disapproval and told The Washington Post, "The Texas law isn’t any different than the Georgia and Indiana voter ID laws, and both of those laws have been in place more than five years"–which is wrong on its face.

It’s quite clear that the Texas law is different than Georgia’s and Indiana’s. Georgia allows Native Americans to show tribal identification cards, while Texas does not. Georgia also allows college IDs to qualify, unlike Texas. In Indiana, you can not use a concealed weapons permit to vote, as in Texas. Most clearly, Texas is a completely different state in both size and demographics. Neither Georgia nor Indiana has Latino populations anywhere near the scope of Texas.

DOJ’s Texas decision rests squarely on the discriminatory impact the voter ID law would have on Hispanic-American registered voters. Depending on which set of numbers supplied by Texas you want to go by, either 175,000 or 304,000 registered Hispanic Texas voters have no driver’s license or state-issued photo ID card, compared to 429,026 or 491,566 who are not Hispanic, making Hispanic Texan voters anywhere from 46.5 percent to 120 percent more likely to lack ID.

Texas has no driver’s license offices in almost a third of the state’s counties. Meanwhile, close to 15 percent of Hispanic Texans living in counties without driver’s license offices don’t have ID. A little less than a quarter of driver’s license offices have extended hours, which would make it tough for many working voters to find a place and time to acquire the IDs. Despite this, the Texas legislature struck an amendment that would have reimbursed low-income voters for travel expenses when going to apply for a voter ID, and killed another that would have required offices to remain open until 7:00 p.m. or later on just one weekday, and four or more hours at least two weekends.

Perez’s conclusion about this:

"Even after submitting data that show over 600,000 registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS — and that a disproportionate share of those registered voters are Hispanic — the state has failed to propose, much less adopt, any program for individuals who have to travel a significant distance to a DPS office, who have limited access to transportation, or who are unable to get to a DPS office during their hours of operation. This failure is particularly noteworthy given Texas’s geography and demographics, which arguably make the necessity for mitigating measures greater than in other states."

Texas didn’t even bother sending data on black and Asian voters, using the Voting Rights Act itself as an excuse by claiming the civil rights legislation compelled them to be "colorblind" in their voting processes. Their decision to leave this information blank provided an opportunity for voting rights groups to fill in those blanks.

The Texas League of Young Voters Education Fund teamed with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to submit comments to DOJ on how African-American registered voters would be affected, particularly those at historically black colleges and universities. They collected anecdotes from hundreds of students at Texas HBCUs who stated they didn’t think they’d be able to get a voter ID due to lack of transportation, funds or the right documents.

Looking at the HBCU Prairie View A&M University in Waller County, the League reminded DOJ of the "unfortunate history of discouraging student voting" from the 1970s to the 2000s. In 2004, the Waller County’s district attorney apologized, under a federal judge’s watch, for "threatening" behavior toward Prairie View students seeking to register to vote.

Their comments also share statistics on the shared burdens of Texas’s black and Latino populations: the poverty rate for Texas Latino Americans and African Americans are 24.8 percent and 23.8 percent respectively, compared to 8.4 percent for white Americans; Latino Americans are 53 percent of all Texans living in poverty, while 16 percent are African American.

As League of Young Voters Texas director Christina Sanders, told me, "DOJ ruled based on information given to them from Texas, but with all of the missing information it probably didn’t even scratch the surface of the total amount of people who would be disenfranchised on the ground."

Texas ACLU attorney Katie O’Connor said of DOJ’s ruling: "We’re pleased the Department of Justice has recognized the harms this discriminatory law would have on people’s fundamental right to vote."

Their independent analysis showed that almost 37 percent of Spanish-surnamed voters and close to 17 percent of African American voters lack proper ID as opposed to just 11 percent of white Texans.

Said Governor Rick Perry, "[DOJ’s] denial is yet another example of the Obama Administration’s continuing and pervasive federal overreach."

No surprise there.

For the numbers of African Americans and Latino Americans living and registered to vote in Texas, check for the infographic here.