DOJ catches Texas violating the court order against its voter suppression law

No one could have seen this one coming.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) (CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) (CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS)

Texas is violating a court order intended to prevent it from suppressing the vote, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In July, a federal appeals court held that Texas’ voter ID law, a common method of voter suppression, violates the Voting Rights Act. In response, Texas agreed to be bound by a court order during the upcoming election that offers a workaround for voters who “cannot reasonably obtain” ID.

The court order provides that registered voters who “present a valid voter registration certificate, a certified birth certificate, a current utility bill, a bank statement, a government check, a paycheck, or any other government document that displays the voter’s name and address” may cast a regular ballot so long as they “sign a reasonable impediment declaration” — a document stating that the voter was not reasonably able to obtain the forms of ID mandated by the illegal Texas law.

Additionally, the court order provides that the state must “educate voters in subsequent elections concerning . . . the opportunity for voters who do not possess SB 14 ID and cannot reasonably obtain it to cast a regular ballot.”

Yet, according to a Justice Department motion filed on Tuesday, Texas is not complying with this order. Texas’ press releases, voter education materials, and poll worker training manuals claim that the right to vote extends only to voters who comply with the illegal law — those who “have not obtained” and “cannot obtain” ID.

As DOJ notes, this “cannot obtain” standard appears to forbid voters impacted by the voter suppression law from voting unless it is literally impossible for them to obtain an ID. But that’s not what the court order said, and it is a distinction that could potentially disenfranchise many voters.

A voter is only slightly more likely to be attacked by a fire-breathing dragon then they are to commit in-person voter fraud.

Consider Eric Kennie, a Texas voter who was disenfranchised by the Texas law in 2014. As the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington reported, Kennie attempted to get the ID he needed to vote under the Texas law. Indeed, he made multiple trips to the state office that issues such IDs. Yet, because Kennie does not drive and he lives in a low-income area without easy access to this office, “each trip involved taking three buses, a journey that can stretch to a couple of hours.” Then, when Kennie arrived at the office, he “had to stand in line, waiting for up to a further three hours to be seen, before finally making another two-hour schlep home.”

Each time Kennie made this trip, he was told that he lacked paperwork he was required to present in order to obtain an ID. Eventually, he gave up after he was refused an ID because his birth certificate listed his last name as “Caruthers,” his mother’s maiden name, not “Kennie,” the name of his father.

But was it really impossible for Kennie to obtain an ID? Could Kennie comply with Texas’ “cannot obtain” standard, rather than the court order’s less rigid “cannot reasonably obtain” standard?

It is far from clear that it was literally impossible for Kennie to obtain ID. He could have attempted to hire legal counsel and pursed his voting rights that way. Or he could have accepted that his legal name is now “Eric Caruthers,” a step he refused to take because he viewed it as an insult to his father. Or perhaps he could have attempted to legally change his name to “Kennie,” the name he has always used, and then take another multi-hour trip attempting to obtain ID once again.

Texas’ “cannot obtain” standard suggests that he is required to jump through these hoops if he wishes to vote. But that is not what the court order said.

As Kennie’s case suggests, voter ID laws have a disproportionate impact on low-income voters, as well as people of color and students, all of which are groups that tend to prefer Democrats over Republicans. And though voter ID’s defenders often claim that such laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud at the polls, a voter is only slightly more likely to be attacked by a fire-breathing dragon then they are to commit in-person voter fraud. A Wisconsin study found just seven cases of fraud among the 3 million votes cast in the state’s 2004 election, and none were the kind of fraud that would be prevented by a voter ID law. Similarly, in 2014, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s (R) two-year investigation into election misconduct within his state uncovered zero cases of in-person voter fraud.

Yet, while such laws ostensibly target a problem that does not exist, they do shift the electorate as a whole rightward. In 2012, data journalist Nate Silver estimated a voter ID law could “reduce President Obama’s margin against Mitt Romney by a net of 1.2 percentage points.” A more recent study found much greater results, determining that “Democratic turnout drops by an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections when strict photo identification laws are in place,” as opposed to just 3.6 percentage points for Republicans.