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Expert Brief

Texas Denies Voters Effect of Court Ruling Striking Down Discriminatory Law

Texans without photo ID were supposed to be able to vote this November. But numerous complaints show the state did an awful job, spreading misinformation and turning away some voters. Here’s a rundown of what happened.

  • Jennifer L. Clark
Published: November 29, 2016

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Yesterday, the Brennan Center, along with other plaintiffs challenging Texas’s strict photo ID law SB 14, filed a motion urging the Supreme Court not to hear an appeal of the case. Even though the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this summer that the law discriminates against African-American and Latino Texans in violation of the Voting Rights Act, Texas continues to defend it, at most recent count having spent over $3.5 million in litigation costs.

In addition to fighting tirelessly in court for its right to enforce a racially discriminatory law, Texas utterly failed this November to follow through on the court-ordered remedy stemming from the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that SB 14 could not stand as written. The trial court, as it was ordered to do by the Fifth Circuit, instituted a remedy that would have made it possible for voters who did not have the required ID, and would have faced a reasonable burden to getting one, to vote a ballot that counted. The trial court’s remedy expanded from 60 days to four years the length of time an SB 14-approved ID can be expired and still be accepted at the polls, allowed voters with an obstacle to obtaining such ID to vote a regular ballot after showing one of a much larger number of readily-available documents, such as a utility bill, and signing a formal statement explaining their obstacle (such as job commitments or transportation issues).

This November, then, was supposed to be the first time in three years that Texans with an obstacle to getting photo ID could cast a ballot that counts. However, the numerous complaints that the Brennan Center and our allies heard from Texans throughout early voting and on Election Day made clear that there was widespread noncompliance with the court-ordered remedy throughout early voting and on Election Day, and misinformation and confusion reigned in too many counties. We heard that election officials were misinforming voters on the ID law and the court-ordered alternate options, even turning some voters away without letting them cast a ballot, and that polling places were distributing misinformation to voters by way of outdated flyers, inaccurate handouts, and posters displaying old voter ID requirements. In Bexar County, a majority-Hispanic county that is one of the largest in the state, the inaccurate voter education information was so bad that a court order was required to fix it.

Hundreds of these reports came from voters calling the non-partisan 866-OUR-VOTE Election Protection hotline, some came through state-based groups looking to assist voters, and still others came from voters emailing or calling the Brennan Center directly because they were looking for someone to help them navigate this mess. In all of these instances, these reports were unsolicited — they happened only when voters had the time to reach out to seek help and knew where to go to get such help. Therefore, they likely understate the full scope of the problem by a substantial degree: a countless number of other would-be voters surely lacked the time or resources to take on the burden of getting help sorting through the confusion and bad information.

The problems voters reached out to us with broke down into two main issues. First, misinformation distributed by poll workers and other election officials. And, second, voters’ general lack of understanding about what the ID law required, uncertainty about whether they possessed a form of identification acceptable for voting, and confusion about what to do if they did not. All of these problems reflect the failure of the state to give full effect to the Fifth Circuit ruling and trial court remedy, and make clear that voters in Texas were not given the relief on Election Day that they were due.

Below is a non-exhaustive, representative sample of the kinds of complaints, questions, and concerns we, along with our allies, received from Texans throughout early voting and on Election Day. These reports, many of which were pulled from Election Protection’s OUR VOTE LIVE data system, which understate the full scope of the problem, came from voters in over 20 counties, which combined represent more than 60 percent of the state’s eligible voting population. Problems were reported in 8 of Texas’s 10 most populous counties.

Texas Denies Voters Effect of Court Ruling Striking Down Discriminatory Law by The Brennan Center for Justice on Scribd