Early voting in Texas began on Monday, amid polling indicating that the presidential race in Texas is closer than it has been in decades. Yet even as Texans have started making their way to the polls, reports indicate they are receiving false and conflicting information about whether or not they have the necessary documents to actually vote.
“If you’re going to say something that’s only half true, and people are going to step out of line and go home, that’s voter suppression,” Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the Texas Tribune of the reports coming in from around Texas.
At issue is Texas’ complicated voter ID regulations, recently softened by a federal judge.
Until August, Texas had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. As with most voter ID requirements, most of the documentation the state accepted before allowing people to cast a ballot was far more likely to be held by wealthier, white voters — who tend to vote Republican. Under the law, for example, state-issued university photo IDs weren’t allowed as identification, but gun licenses were. University IDs are free for students, while a gun license costs $140 (or $70 if you’re below the poverty line).
As a result of the strict requirements, on Super Tuesday more than half a million registered Texas voters lacked the proper form of identification, and were told they were unable to vote.
Since the law’s implementation, however, legal challenges have been winding their way through the courts, where the law has repeatedly been condemned as discriminatory. In 2014, a federal judge slammed the law as a “poll tax.” And earlier this year, in July, the law was again struck down in a higher federal appeals court, which ruled that the law discriminated against minority voters and violated the Voting Rights Act.
But the ruling that most directly impacts this election — for which a record 15.1 million Texans have registered to vote — came in August.
As a temporary fix for the suppression, a federal judge split voters into two groups. Those who do possess a qualifying photo ID under the 2011 law must bring it to the polls with them. Those who can’t “reasonably obtain” one of the specified IDs, however, can still vote in the 2016 election. Those voters must bring a document showing their name and address, such as a utility bill or a voter registration card, and sign a statement noting that there was a “reasonable impediment” to their ability to get a photo ID.
But according to reporting from the Texas Tribune, complaints have come in from different parts of Texas that allege officials are misleading voters about the new rules.
In one county in Texas, according to the Tribune’s reporting, as voting started on Monday lawyers spotted outdated posters spelling out the old rules — without saying that they had been softened to include more voters — hanging in at least 14 of 43 polling places.
— Molly E Neck (@MollyENeck) October 24, 2016
Posters were updated following judges order. This one is being removed.
— Secretary of State (@TXsecofstate) October 24, 2016
A spokeswoman for the County Clerk insisted that the posters had been replaced as of late Tuesday, and in response to a tweeted photo of the misleading photo, the Secretary of State responded that the posters, newly updated following a judges order, where in the process of being replaced.
Lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, however, said that as of late Tuesday at least eight polling places still had the outdated rules posted — either alone, or alongside posters with the new rules.
And, in several Texas counties, voters told the Texas Tribune that poll workers were telling voters waiting in line to prepare their photo ID, without adding that if you didn’t have one, there were still ways to vote.
Houston attorney Scott Rothenberg laid out his experience with a misleading poll worker — who refused to change her routine until an on-site election judge ordered her to — in detail in a Facebook post.
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While no definitive reports have indicated that people have been turned away, the muddied information could lead to confused voters leaving the polls, thinking they’re not eligible when they actually are.
This is all the more likely in light of research showing that most Texans themselves are confused about the state’s voting regulations. In a poll by the University of Houston of 1,000 registered voters, more than half were uncertain about what kinds of identification was needed to vote.
Forty-four percent of all voters thought that a photo ID was required, while 29 percent said they didn’t know. Only 26 percent of voters answered correctly: a photo ID is not required to vote under the current regulations. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian voters were significantly more likely than white voters to be confused about the regulations.
The confusion in Texas is understandable: Starting in 2013, the state spent millions defending the law and educating voters about the strict voting requirements. And, even after the rules changed, in September voting rights advocates and the Department of Justice accused the state of failing to make a good faith effort to educate the public about the softened law, saying that the new election education materials still implied that the requirements were more stringent than they actually were.
While the state has made a significant advertising push since then, they’ve had only a short amount of time to combat years of now-false information. The mass confusion makes it all the more likely that falsely disenfranchised voters won’t know when their legal rights are being denied by misdirection.
Nor are Texans the only voters that are confused. Since the last presidential election, a rash of voter ID laws have cropped up around the United States, and a recent national survey by PEW shows that many Americans are unsure of where their state lands. Four out of ten voters believe they have to show a photo ID when the don’t; one in five voters living in states that require a photo ID are unaware that they need one to vote.