Texas Republicans have been trying for years to pass a law that would require state voters to show identification before hitting the polls—and state Democrats have been equally determined to stop such a measure. The Rs came close in 2009, but the House Democrats, only two seats away from a majority, blew up the legislative session rather than see the measure pass. By 2011, however, fresh from Tea Party victories, the GOP had overwhelming majorities in both Houses. The bill was almost undoubtedly going to pass, and rather than go for a more moderate version of voter ID with non-photo options, the conservatives went for the gold, introducing one of the most stringent versions of a voter-ID requirement. The only option left for the Democrats was to set up the grounds for the legal battles sure to come.
Monday, it looked like those efforts paid off. The Department of Justice has blocked the law, meaning that while the measure goes to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the Lone Star State won't be allowed to enforce the measure. Not every state must seek permission before changing election law, a process known as preclearance. The entire reason Texas must preclear changes to its election law stems from the state's history of civil-rights abuses. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, it seems the feds are right to keep their guard up.
Of the many problems the Justice Department outlines in its letter to the state, one major point came up repeatedly during the legislative debate on the subject: the plight of rural voters. Democratic senators hit hard on the problem of access to state driver's license offices; in the letter, the Justice Department notes that 81 of the state's 254 counties lack operational driver's license offices. The department also notes that in rural areas, the gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics who have the necessary ID is "particularly stark in counties without driver's license offices." The senators were also vehement in discussing the hardships low-income voters would face both in terms of logistics and in terms of monetary costs. The Justice Department finds that someone lacking the necessary documents to get an ID would have to start by obtaining a birth certificate—at minimum $22.
The question, not surprisingly, stems from whether Hispanic voters will be disproportionately affected by the new hurdles. The Justice Department is fairly damning here, looking separately at two data sets provided by the state, one from September 2011 and one from January 2012. The state failed to explain discrepancies between the two sets of data, but more important, the two sets both show similar trends. Latino residents are significantly less likely to have the identification necessary for voting. Furthermore, the letter notes that the state has done almost nothing to educate voters about the coming change: "The state has indicated that it will implement a new educational program," the letter reads, "but as of this date, our information indicates that the currently proposed plan will incorporate the new identification requirement into a general voter-education program."
The state attorney general has already filed a preemptive lawsuit, so the next step is the D.C. Courts. But in the meantime, the law can't go into effect—a legal win for the minority rights groups and Democrats fighting against the state. It's not the only victory. As the Justice Department issued its letter, a second judge in Wisconsin blocked the state's measure to require identification. Back in December, the Obama administration nixed a similar proposal from South Carolina.
To me, the partisan quality of the debate stains almost everything. Last week, I wrote about Connecticut's efforts to increase voter turnout—a rare example in the midst of efforts to make voting more difficult. I'll say now what I said then. These measures have obvious partisan consequences—and voter ID would help Republicans and hurt Democrats in political races. It's obvious that concern for power is motivating many of the actors in the debate.
But voting is a holy act in democratic governments. It's a powerful right, one people have struggled and died to exercise, and only relatively recently have minority communities had the necessary legal protections to get to the ballot box. The fact that the Justice Department's decision may benefit one political party is hardly worth mentioning when one considers that it also benefits the basic rights of citizens.