On the Ground: Texas Voter ID Troubles Continue

November 1, 2014
Texas Voter ID

Voting is now underway in Texas, a state with one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. This is the first federal election since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which would have required Texas to get government approval for these changes. Below are stories from actual voters and the difficulties they’ve encountered. Initials are used for those voters who wish to remain anonymous. In many cases, Texas failed these voters twice first by requiring identification they did not have, and second by not training election officials to help them navigate the rules.

More stories are here and here. Voters in need of assistance should call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, where trained volunteers are standing by to assist voters and answer any questions they may have.

“I’m really angry but I will be back to vote. I’m not done here.”

Dr. Kathleen Quinn has lived and voted in San Antonio since 2000. Though she is almost 70 years old and uses a cane, she sees patients and teaches all over the South, including in Georgia and Mississippi. She was a first responder in coastal communities after Hurricane Katrina. She is also an enthusiastic voter — each year, she votes in the same place in San Antonio where she is well known by poll workers.

This time the greeting was different. When she showed her Georgia driver’s license — which she had used the previous year — poll workers told her she couldn’t vote because only Texas drivers’ licenses were accepted. Nor could she use her voter registration card or anything else she had — none of her identification met the state requirements. Dr. Quinn was confused and upset because she cares deeply about exercising her right to vote. She told them, “I’m really angry but I will be back to vote. I’m not done here.”

Dr. Quinn thought it would be fastest to get an Election Identification Certificate (EIC), the so-called “free ID” that can be used only for voting purposes. But when she went to a Department of Public Safety (DPS) office on the outskirts of San Antonio, she was told she could not get an EIC because the identifying documents she brought were not sufficient. She was told to bring back an original birth certificate, social security card, marriage license, and pieces of financial mail sent to her Texas address. DPS officials actually demanded more than what was necessary — if she had her birth certificate, marriage license, and voter registration card, it would have been enough. She would not need her social security card in addition to these documents, and she would not need to bring “financial” mail, which is not a requirement to get an EIC. She was also told she needed an “original” birth certificate, when a certified copy would have been permissible.

Dr. Quinn was born in Louisiana, and did not have her Louisiana birth certificate with her in Texas. When she tried to order it online — for $28 — she discovered she would not receive it in time to vote. Instead, she dispatched her 70-year-old husband to drive 57 miles from New Orleans to Mississippi to retrieve her birth certificate from a bank safety deposit box. He barely made it. The bank was closing as he arrived, but held the doors open for him so he could get the birth certificate. He then drove back to New Orleans and mailed it to her — overnight shipping — just so she could finally get her supposedly “free” ID.

Dr. Quinn was determined to vote because, in her words, “People have died for me to have this right. I will have this right.” But she could do so only with her husband’s help and at great cost. She worries that “there are people who can’t afford the $28 for the documents. There are people who can’t drive to Mississippi to get their birth certificates. This is so wrong. It is so wrong.”

“They think someone is going to forge my driver’s license to vote?”

Chris Ponce*, 30, lives in Edinburg. He has voted many times before, and he tried to vote again this year. He wanted to cast a ballot, as the rest of his family did, because he has a family friend running for office. But after waiting in line, he was not able to vote because his Texas driver’s license had expired in August, just weeks before the cutoff. The new Texas law requires a driver’s license to be unexpired or expired in the last 60 days. 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. Instead, they told him to renew his license.

Mr. Ponce said he was frustrated and angered by the experience. He does plan to get his license renewed — but not before this election, so he won’t get to vote this year. He says he will not be deterred from voting in the future, but he is worried about other people — like those voting for the first time — who might be less confident, and might not ever come back to vote. Mr. Ponce thinks it is ridiculous that you can go in with a registration card, birth certificate, and a Texas driver’s license and not be allowed to vote, just because it’s a few weeks past the expiration deadline. To him, the idea that someone else could somehow vote with his expired ID makes no sense. “They think someone is going to forge my driver’s license to vote?”

“I was the only one asked, and I was the only minority”

Pilar Ortiz-Groseclose lives in Arlington. A long-time voter, she describes her family as patriotic, and many family members are veterans. She remembers the pride she felt when she cast her first ballot at 18 years old. Ms. Ortiz-Groseclose visited her local early voting site the day it opened to cast her ballot. When she arrived, she was in line behind four white women. As she was going through her purse to find her photo ID to be ready when it was her turn, a white poll worker walked over to her and stood right in front of her face. Ms. Pilar recounted what happened next.

“Make sure you have your photo ID when you get to the table,” she said.
“Excuse me?” replied Ms. Ortiz-Groseclose.
“Make sure you have your ID when you get to the table.”
“Did you ask this to the other women in front of me? I know you didn’t. I was looking for my ID when you came over, and I don’t appreciate you treating me differently.”
“I didn’t mean for you to get that impression.”
“You most certainly did, and either you treat me the same as everyone else, or put up a sign about photo ID in both Spanish and English, but don’t single out a person… this is outrageous.”

After Ms. Ortiz-Groseclose voted, she saw two other white voters enter the polling location, neither of whom were approached in the same manner. It is not a burden for her to produce her identification, but she is angry that the law is not being administered the same way for everyone.

Other longtime voters rebuked

Rebecca Molina is an experienced volunteer who was helping voters get to the polls in Edinburg when she saw lifelong voters blocked from casting ballots. Ms. Molina saw 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.

Ms. Molina is worried about the effect this kind of episode might have on participation. She is civically empowered and will stand up for her rights, but she says that others — especially Latino voters of a certain generation — being told they can’t vote might make them think they will get in trouble, even if they have the right to vote. Getting an EIC can be a real hurdle, too. The Edinburg DPS closed down earlier this year, and the only nearby DPS — in McAllen — is always packed. There is another DPS in Weslaco, but that is 25 miles away.

“Nobody’s exempt … everyone has to show an ID”

Pamela Curry is disabled and lives in Dallas. Because disabled voters may have trouble getting photo ID, they are entitled to a permanent exemption from the requirement. Pamela obtained this exemption and got a new registration card indicating she does not need photo ID when voting.

Ms. Curry votes early because she is too busy working as an election judge on Election Day itself. When she presented her voter registration card, which said she did not need to show photo ID, the poll worker gave her a blank stare. When she called an election judge over to correct the problem, he said, “Nobody’s exempt … everyone has to show an ID.” Only after Ms. Curry insisted they were wrong, even raising her voice to stand up for herself, did they call the elections office and find out about the disability exemption.

Ms. Curry, an election judge herself and also a deputy registrar, understands the perspective of election officials as well as anyone. But, she says, “A person who goes through the trouble to get the exemption notated on their card, should not be facing this trouble when trying to cast a ballot.” The state legislature made this exemption available, she says, “and they claim it’s easy but it’s not.”

She says her experience proves changing the voter ID law Texas had for a long time to something much more complicated and strict is causing confusion. The Supreme Court’s decision letting this new photo ID law go forward is making election administration hard for election workers. “Going back to the old voter ID law would have been less confusing — they all know how to use that.”

“We don’t do that here. I’ve never heard of that.”

Katie, a resident of Frisco, Texas, heard about the new voter ID law and realized she did not have an acceptable form of ID to vote. So she went to a DPS office in Collin County to get an EIC so she could participate. But when she arrived, an employee told her, “We don’t do that here. I’ve never heard of that.”

Katie then waited in line to speak to a teller, a very nice man who also had no idea what she was talking about. He also said he’d never heard of an EIC before and didn’t think they had them at the DPS office. Katie told him she had done the research and learned that DPS does provide EICs, and that she had spent the past month compiling all the documents she would need and had brought them all with her. She even updated the name on her social security card to her married name, and got a certified copy of her birth certificate. Finally, a supervisor was called and instructed the employees to issue her an EIC. But there was another problem: None of the employees knew how the process of issuing an EIC worked. One of the employees told her they “hadn’t been trained on that in years,” (never mind that the EIC has only been available since June 2013) and no one knew what to do. 

Eventually, Katie suggested that they issue her a driver’s license (for a fee) instead, since that would also allow her to vote. She didn’t want to pay, but she said it was clear no one knew what they were doing at the DPS. While she was there, she witnessed another voter trying to get an EIC who ended up being turned away.

Help is available!

Voters should not be discouraged from exercising their right to vote! Anyone in need of assistance with the new voter identification requirements, or with other questions about the voting process, should call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, where trained volunteers are standing by to assist voters and answer any questions they may have. The hotline is run by Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition of voter protection organizations. 

*Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Mr. Ponce's name.

(Photo: AP)