Voting 2014: Stories from Texas

Texas already has one of the nation’s lowest voter turnouts. This year, voters had to contend with the state’s new harsh photo ID law, which left many confused, disheartened, and even disenfranchised.

November 19, 2014

America’s struggle for voting rights continues. In the 2014 election, new voting restrictions were in place in 21 states — 14 for the first time in a federal election. These laws ranged from voter ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration limits. In this new series — Voting 2014: Stories from the States — the Brennan Center is collecting stories of citizens who have been unfairly impacted by these new restrictions. Click here to see the entire series.

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Background

This election, Texas once again had one of the worst turnout rates in the country, with turnout dropping approximately 5 points compared to 2010. To exacerbate this troubling trend, this year was also the first federal election in which voters had to contend with an additional barrier to the ballot box: Texas’s new photo ID law, the harshest in the nation.

Voters were confused, disheartened, and even disenfranchised by a law that does not deem many forms of ID used in daily life as acceptable to cast a ballot. Their stories show the courts failed to stop a discriminatory requirement from being in place, but also that Texas’s shoddy implementation of the law multiplied confusion at the ballot box.

Ahead of the 2012 election, both the Department of Justice and a federal court blocked the law, finding it harmed minority voters. But once the protections of the Voting Rights Act were removed in 2013, Texas raced to put its photo ID requirement in place, despite the court’s earlier finding of discrimination.

Advocates challenged the ID law once again at a September 2014 trial, and in October, a federal district court struck down the photo ID law and held that Texas passed the requirement to intentionally discriminate against Latinos and African Americans, marking the first time a federal court has made such a finding about an ID law. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found 608,470 registered and qualified Texas voters do not have the required ID. She also found African-American registered voters are 305 percent more likely and Hispanic registered voters 195 percent more likely than white registered voters to lack photo ID that can be used to vote. Uncontroverted expert data presented at trial showed that 1.2 million eligible Texans do not have IDs that would be accepted under the new law.

Despite this evidence, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court allowed Texas’s law to be implemented this fall without ruling on the merits. Voters paid the consequences. Unprotected by the courts, they contended with a photo ID requirement that left many confused as to how they would vote.

Stories from the Ground

We interviewed some voters who were unfairly affected by the law. Below are some illustrative stories of the kinds of problems Texans experienced this election. In some cases, voters are referred to by their first name in order to protect their identities.

People with IDs they believed to be valid were turned away. Texas’s law, unlike other strict photo ID laws, does not allow people to vote with valid driver’s licenses from other states, even though this is a trusted form of identity for many other common transactions. Even a Texas driver’s license is insufficient if it has been expired more than 60 days, a requirement that particularly impacts the elderly.

  • Diana F’s mother is elderly — she will be 95 soon — and she has voted her whole life. Her mother was very upset when she learned about the voter ID law. Her driver's license had expired because she can no longer drive, and the free ID option would be difficult because of transportation limitations.
  • Chris Ponce was not able to vote because his Texas driver’s license had expired in August, just weeks before the cutoff. Despite having his expired state-issued photo ID, his voter registration card, and even his birth certificate, the poll workers would not let him vote.
  • Krystal Watson, a student at a historically black college, was not allowed to cast a ballot because she had a Louisiana driver’s license and a Wiley College ID, but not the ID required by the law.

Poll workers gave incorrect information to voters, and public education around the law remained inadequate. Texas did not sufficiently prepare election staff to implement the photo ID requirement, despite the law originally passing in 2011. While some poll workers gave voters entirely incorrect information about the new law, improperly turning them away, even more common was a failure to provide information that would help them eventually vote. Poll workers in these cases failed to tell voters about the free ID alternative or the option of voting via provisional ballot. Because Texas has spent little on public information efforts, Texans were especially reliant on election officials to inform them of the law’s contours.

  • Lee Calvin Molina had an expired ID within the 60-day window allowed by the Texas law, but was turned away by poll workers who did not properly understand and administer the law. He was able to vote because an experienced campaign volunteer later told him the poll worker was wrong, and he went back to cast a ballot.
  • Because disabled voters may have trouble getting photo ID, they are entitled to a permanent exemption from the requirement. Pamela Curry obtained this exemption and got a new registration card indicating she does not need photo ID when voting. When she went to vote this election, she was incorrectly told that she would need other ID. She was only able to vote because she knew the rules and insisted that the poll workers call the elections office to find out they were wrong.
  • Rebecca Molina, a volunteer who was helping voters get to the polls, saw lifelong voters blocked from casting ballots. Ms. Molina observed an election official not only refuse to allow an elderly voter cast a ballot with an expired license, but even saw her raise her voice at the voter when she asked why she could not vote in the way she always had in the past.
  • Sandra McCartney was told her military ID was inadequate, even though that is legally one of the accepted forms of identification. She eventually gave up and used her driver’s license. But she says if she did not have her driver’s license, she might have been stopped from voting entirely: “What if I had only had my military ID?”

The “free ID” alternative proves costly and in some cases, almost impossible to obtain. As of October 30, Texas had issued only 371 free IDs, a woefully inadequate number considering the hundreds of thousands of registered voters without acceptable ID under the new law. Even if the ID itself is free, for many people the cost of obtaining the underlying documents necessary to get it is prohibitive. These IDs, or Election Identification Certificates (EICs), are distributed by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), an agency not used to performing any sort of election administration. The connection to law enforcement also discourages voters who are afraid that outstanding tickets or child support payments could cause further problems and bring scrutiny or fees they could not afford.

  • Jesus Garcia went to the Weslaco DPS office twice and both times was unable to get an ID. His birth certificate was stolen and he does not have a copy. He wants to get identification, but to get both a replacement birth certificate and a new ID would be more than $30 combined.
  • Katie, a voter from Frisco, Texas, went to a DPS office to obtain an EIC and was incorrectly told by several employees that DPS did not issue them at all. She eventually suggested they issue her a driver’s license (for a fee) instead. She didn’t want to pay, but she said it was clear no one knew what they were doing at the DPS.
  • Dr. Kathleen Quinn, a woman who travels back and forth from Georgia to Texas, was turned away at the polling place she had gone to for years because she had a Georgia driver’s license. Her husband ended up driving from New Orleans to Mississippi in order to obtain the documentation she would need to get an EIC.
  • Sammie Bates, a witness at the Texas trial, supports her family on approximately $300 in Social Security income per month. She has spent months saving up the necessary $42 to obtain her birth certificate from Mississippi, which would allow her to apply for a new photo ID.  She was unable to vote in the November election because she still does not have an ID accepted under the Texas law.