A Hesitant Celebration of the Voting Rights Act’s 50th Anniversary

The 5th Circuit’s Ruling on Texas’s Voter ID Law is Welcome, but Not Enough

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.

It began slowly enough, with boycotts and bus rides and sit-ins and strikes, and built over time to the clamorous and inexorable crescendo of a beleaguered people fed up with centuries of voicelessness. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

But the fiefdoms of institutionalized racism fought back, with high-pressure hoses and attack dogs and cudgels and guns, leaving a host of martyrs in their wake: Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Harry and Harriet Moore, Viola Liuzzo, Vernon Dahmer, and four little girls blown to pieces in a church while changing into their choir robes.

But in the end these martyrs and those who marched with them achieved what was thought by many to be unthinkable: the passage of what was rightly heralded as the singlemost effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history.

As we celebrate the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary, we wish we could say that the landscape had changed. But we’re still lobbing tear gas grenades at peaceful protesters, still killing unarmed black men in the streets, and still doing our level best to keep people of color out of the voting booth.

In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that “history did not end in 1965” and struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act it deemed outmoded and unnecessary. Specifically, it removed the “preclearance condition” by which nine states that had systematically disenfranchised black voters were required to submit their voting laws to the federal government for approval before they could be enacted. Texas was among them.

Almost immediately after the decision was handed down, Texas began enforcing the harshest voter ID law in the country that at a stroke disenfranchised 600,000 black and Latino voters. It became instantly clear that the Supreme Court was correct in one sense: history hadn’t ended in 1965. But it also hadn’t changed much.

On Wednesday the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that Texas’s voter ID law was discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act. This was a welcome victory for the hundreds of thousands of Texans who had seen their voting rights stripped away in the last election. But the Court stopped short of finding that the law intentionally discriminates, and the preclearance condition is still absent from federal law. The ruling came too late, and didn’t go nearly far enough.

That the Voting Rights Act passed at all was just shy of a miracle. But we don’t quite require a miracle to restore it to its former glory. All we require is leadership. Congress must work to reinstate the preclearance condition, which is self-evidently every bit as necessary as it was in 1965. Every American’s voice deserves to be heard.

Mark Humphries is the Writer and Content Developer for the ACLU of Texas.

Know Your Rights at the Polls

The Justice Department found that Texas's Photo Voter ID law discriminates against minority voters. Spread the word.

Early voting in the Texas primaries began May 14th, and we’ve been hearing from people around the state about the unprecedented level of confusion among voters, media, and even election officials over the Photo Voter ID law that was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011.

Let’s set the record straight! The Photo Voter ID law is NOT in effect, and you can vote in the primary as you always have.

Learn more about your voting rights at the polls.

The Justice Department (DOJ) found that Texas’s Photo Voter ID law discriminates against minority voters, many of whom lack the kinds of ID the law requires. DOJ blocked the law, and although the State of Texas has sued DOJ and challenged the Voting Rights Act, that case is still pending.

Of course, Texas law has always required that voters show some form of ID, and that is still the case for this election. But it doesn’t have to be a photo ID. Your voter registration certificate, for example, is perfectly acceptable!

Know your rights when you go to the polls.

Court Rules Arizona’s Law Restricting Voter Access is Unconstitutional

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

Today, the Ninth Circuit ruling in Gonzalez v. State of Arizona struck down critical provisions of an Arizona law that restricted voter access.

The plaintiff in the case, Jesus Gonzalez, was a newly-naturalized U.S. Citizen when he tried to register to vote. Jesus provided his driver’s license and his naturalization certificate number, but was rejected twice. Arizona officials claimed they couldn’t confirm his citizenship.

Texas should recognize that laws like Arizona’s Proposition 200, which passed in 2004, are unconstitutional and violate the National Voting Rights Act because they force U.S. citizens to go through unnecessary obstacles to vote.

“The court was correct in ruling that federal law does not require residents to produce unnecessary documents proving their citizenship in order to register to vote,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “This is an important victory at a time when many states are making it harder for people to exercise their fundamental right to vote, which is the backbone of our democracy. We hope this decision sends a message to other states that we should not be making it harder for people to participate in our political process.”

Learn more about the work the ACLU is doing to stop voter suppression .

From undermining democracy to increasing mass incarceration, ALEC has got it covered

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Reacting to backlash against voter suppression efforts promulgated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two of the organization’s giant corporate members – Coca Cola and PepsiCo – have succumbed to pressure from public interest groups and severed their ties to the group.

According to a National Public Radio report, ALEC promotes business-friendly legislation in state capitols and drafts model bills for state legislatures to adopt.  They range from little-noticed pro-business bills to more controversial measures, including photo voter identification laws.  These laws directly benefit the corporations’ bottom line regardless of the societal cost.

Thankfully, the truth is starting to come out about how ALEC is an affront to our democracy.  A few days ago the Huffington Post published an article titled How Are ALEC Laws Undermining Our Democracy?

So what kind of bills does ALEC draft and spread state to state? According to the article:

–       Democracy-undermining Voter ID legislation that has been passed in at least 14 states – under the guise of preventing election fraud (which no one can actually find).

–       Voucher programs that privatize public education.

–       Anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.

–       Anti-worker legislation.

–       Laws that undermine smart-on-crime reforms, such as “three strikes,” mandatory minimum sentencing, and “truth in sentencing.”

As the list above shows, ALEC’s model legislation has a real world negative impact on the civil liberties of all Americans, puts more people needlessly behind bars, undermines our democracy, and makes communities across the country less safe.

The ACLU of Texas works to protect the civil liberties of all Texans, but we need your help.  Follow our work and join our Community Action Network – together we can ensure that civil liberties, not corporate profits, prevail at the Texas Capitol.

No Evidence of Voter Fraud at the Polls

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

The proponents of Texas’ discriminatory Voter ID law have done a good job making the public believe that Texas is rife with voter fraud at the polls.  There’s just one problem … they’re wrong.  Texas doesn’t have a voter fraud problem.  Just last weekend, the San Antonio Express and The Austin American Statesman did a good job at reminding us of this important detail.

The real abuse is not voter fraud at the polls; it is our state government’s attempts to suppress the fundamental voting rights of citizens of color in Texas.   The Department of Justice recently stated that Texas’ proposed voter ID law would disproportionately affect Hispanics – up to 600,000 eligible voters could be turned away at the polls.  Furthermore, as stated in the articles:

“Fewer than five ‘illegal voting’ complaints involving voter impersonation were filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office  from the 2008 and 2010 general elections in which more than 13 million voters participated (and)…the attorney general handled just 20 allegations of election law violations in the 2008 and 2010 elections.  Most involved mail-in ballot or campaign finance violations, electioneering too close to a polling place or a voter blocked by an election worker.”

Recognizing the discriminatory nature of this law as well as the lack of its necessity, some prominent lawmakers have been against voter ID from the start.  Senator Rodney Ellis said that there are more UFO and Bigfoot sightings than documented cases of voter impersonation and Representative Rafael Anchia from Dallas feels that those in favor of the law are conjuring up images of “busloads of illegal immigrants being transported up from Mexico to vote straight-ticket Democratic.”

The rhetoric, fear mongering, and storytelling has gone too far.  This law, if implemented, will prevent eligible Texans from voting both in rural counties and cities.  Texas already has one of the country’s lowest voter turnout rates (usually number 46 or 47).  Do we really want to end up at number 50?

Standing up for Voting Rights Again: DOJ Objects to Texas’ Discriminatory Voter ID Law

By Katie O’Connor, ACLU Voting Rights Project (originally posted at: http://www.aclu.org/blog)

Another victory for voting rights!

The Department of Justice (DOJ) stood up for voting rights again today. In the latest battle in the ongoing war on voting, the DOJ has objected to Texas’ proposed voter ID law, stopping the law before it goes into effect. In its objection letter, DOJ rightfully concluded that the State of Texas was not able to prove that the voter ID law would not have a discriminatory effect on voters in the state.

In fact, we do know the law would have a devastating impact on the right to vote in our country’s second most populous state. To forecast the impact the law would have on its voters, the state provided DOJ with two different sets of data, one from September 2011 and one from January 2012. Both sets make it clear that with this new law in effect, hundreds of thousands of voters would be pushed out of our most fundamental democratic process.

The September data shows that 603,892 (or 4.7 percent) of the state’s nearly 13 million registered voters lack the types of ID required by the proposed law. According to this data, Hispanic voters are nearly 50 percent more likely than white voters to lack the requisite ID.

The January data is even more discouraging, showing that 795,955 (or 6.2 percent) of Texas’ registered voters would be disfranchised by the voter ID law. According to the January data, Hispanic voters are more than twice as likely as white voters to lack the requisite ID.

While the state did not explain the difference between the two data sets or offer advice on which was more accurate, it simply doesn’t matter. What’s abundantly clear is that Texas’ proposed voter ID law would disfranchise hundreds of thousands of registered voters without addressing any real problems.

Texas claimed that the law was necessary to ensure election integrity by detecting and deterring voter fraud. But at the outset, DOJ remarked that the state produced no evidence of in-person voter fraud that was not already addressed by existing state and federal laws. The state’s justification for the law, then, is illusory at best and pre-textual at worst.

This is the second time in three months that the Department of Justice has stepped in to block unnecessary and discriminatory voting laws. While we have many battles ahead, the momentum is building on our side. Democracy will prevail, and we will eventually win in this war on voting.

Our most fundamental right is in jeopardy

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

The day I cast my first vote, admittedly for losing candidates, I walked a little taller because I was certain that day I had become an adult.  To this day, my family may have to miss spending Thanksgiving together, but we always get together in person or, now, virtually, on Election Day. Simply put, for me, there is just no constitutional right more important than the right to vote. Without it, our Constitution is not worth the paper it is printed on.

That’s why I’m so excited to have been invited to hear Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Tuesday night at the LBJ Auditorium in Austin. The late president’s family will be there to hear General Holder talk about the importance of voting rights and Lyndon Johnson’s heroic leadership in getting the law enacted.

The Attorney General is expected to reiterate the importance of respecting and ensuring the voting rights of all Americans. In Texas, this means, fighting back against those who would shrink our democracy by restricting the right to vote.

We await a decision from the Department of Justice about the legality of Texas’ new Voter ID law under the Voting Rights Act. I trust that the justice department sees clearly the motives of those who would deny large groups of Texans their right to vote.  It would be funny if it weren’t so awful: our state ranks among the lowest (45th in 2008) in the nation in voter turnout. We ought to be thinking of ways to promote and ensure the right to vote; instead we are shamefully making it more difficult for people to exercise their constitutional right.  As I told the Texas Senate in January, this law is a solution in search of a problem. There is NO evidence of in-person voter fraud in Texas.

Our new Voter ID law, like efforts in at least six other states, is designed to keep people of color and those in lower income groups away from the polls.  Here’s why: it would require a registered voter who previously only had to present her voter registration card to now show a Texas drivers’ license, a Texas state ID card, a concealed handgun carry license, a U.S. military card or a U.S. passport.  Unable to show any of these, she may cast a provisional ballot, which will only be counted if she comes forward with the required ID within 6 days. (Small comfort, as our state has one of the lowest rates of cleared provisional ballots in the country. About eighty percent were rejected in 2008.)

If this law is allowed to stand, our state will have serious problems.  An expert on census and voting reviewed three demographic studies and concluded that hundreds of thousands of minority voters do not have the required identification. Nor will it be easy for them to get the IDs required to vote. Almost half of Texas’ 254 counties have drivers’ license offices with reduced hours or no motor vehicle office at all.

A person who lives in, let’s say, the Big Bend area of Texas where her county has no motor vehicles office, faces potentially insurmountable hurdles. First, she has to have a birth certificate ($22) or a marriage license ($71) if there has been a name change or a passport ($110) to get the state-issued ID.  Then, there is the cost of the trip to the drivers’ license office; in the case of the Big Bend resident, it’s about an hour and half to the nearest office in Alpine.  With gas prices so high, she could spend up to $85 for the roundtrip. And remember, our potential voter doesn’t drive: she has to find a friend or relative who does have a drivers’ license. And then there are the costs of lost wages. It’s like that advertisement says: The Cost of the Right to Vote in Texas? priceless.

Under this law Texans — particularly those who are elderly or have disabilities or are students or are voters of color or are low-income — will have their cherished constitutional right to vote restricted. That’s wrong, and we hope Attorney General Holder will put a stop to it.

Click on our voting rights action alert, and urge the Department of Justice to exercise its authority under the Voting Rights act and block this suppression measure.

Voter ID: Texas Didn’t Get it Right, but we Hope the DOJ Will

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

“You need an ID to be able to check out a book at the library.  Why shouldn’t you need one at the polls?”  We heard this argument in support of the new Voter ID bill over and over again at the Capitol during the last legislative session.  The answer, of course, is that the right to vote is constitutionally protected, whereas library privileges are not.  That’s why a library can charge a fee for a library card, but even the most stringent supporter of the Voter ID bill would cringe at the idea of a poll tax.

We argued long and hard against passing the new voter ID bill in Texas, but unfortunately the anti-immigrant haze that covered the Capitol during the last legislative session clouded fair and smart decision-making to ensure the integrity of the vote. The new law, which will require a state-approved picture ID for all people voting in person, is supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2012.  Because Texas has a history of voter disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act requires the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that any new voting law does not discriminate against minorities.

The DOJ is waiting on the state of Texas to provide the racial breakdown and counties of residence of the estimated 605,500 registered voters who do not have a state-issued license or ID. They are also asking how many voters have Spanish surnames.  Apparently, the Texas Secretary of State’s office will provide the information but Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the agency said it will be significantly skewed and won’t be very reliable.  One reason for this is because the category “Hispanic” wasn’t included until 2009.  Rebecca Acuna, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said that the limited data that the state has already furnished shows that Hispanic voters would be disproportionately disenfranchised.

The ACLU of Texas was against this bill from the beginning, as it will clearly discourage or downright prevent many eligible voters from voting.   ID cards are not easy for all Texans to access – there are 34 Texas counties without a DPS office and 46 additional counties where DPS offices have been temporarily closed. In West Texas that means some people may have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain the proper ID to vote.  This is unacceptable, especially when the bill was based on a problem – voter fraud at the polls – that simply doesn’t exist in Texas.  We hope that the DOJ will come to the right conclusion – that the voter ID law in Texas is discriminatory and will disenfranchise voters who are legally entitled to vote.  Stay tuned!

The REAL Voting Problem in Texas

By Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

Even though there’s no evidence of voter fraud at the polls, the governor included a Photo Voter Identification law as an emergency priority requiring immediate passage by the legislature. As the ACLU of Texas has said from the beginning, Voter ID is a solution in search of a problem.

There is, however, a real voting problem in Texas: turnout. We are ranked among the worst states in terms of voter participation. This fact stands in startling contrast to the current push for more stringent voting procedures which could further discourage voting, particularly by elderly and low income voters. That’s because requiring photo identification to vote means that the elderly and low income individuals, such as students who may not otherwise need a state-issued ID, must find a way to get to the Department of Public Safety offices and request such a document and pay for it. In some counties, DPS offices are far apart and difficult to reach. For some travel costs pose a financial burden as well as a logistical problem.

On Thursday, March 17, the State House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Photo Voter Identification Bill, known as SB 14. This Voter ID bill has been rushed through the Senate and through committee in the House. Now the full House will consider this proposal, the most stringent in the country.

We encourage you to contact your state legislators and communicate your concern about this proposal and the wrong direction this bill is taking our state. Texas should focus on the real issues with voting, such as our low participation. We should be encouraging full participation by all eligible voters, not creating new bureaucratic requirements that further undermine our already low voter turnout. The money spent implementing Voter ID (currently listed as $2 million but likely to be more) could be used to train Texans to assist individuals with voting or provide transportation to the polls.

Let’s identify solutions to our real problem, voter participation, rather than creating solutions for imaginary problems.

Oppose New Voter ID Requirements

Texas Doesn’t Need a Costly New Government Program that May Disenfranchise Citizens & Suppress Voter Turnout.

Our organizations have come together to call on the Texas Legislature to reject costly, unnecessary legislation requiring legitimate voters to provide additional identification when they go to vote.

At a time when drastic budget cuts to education and other crucial programs are under consideration, the last thing Texas needs is a new government program that would disenfranchise many legitimate voters and cause confusion at the polls while also adding to budget problems at state and local levels.

Texas ranked 50th, last among all states, in turnout of the voter eligible population for the 2010 elections. Texas needs increased voter turnout, not government action that further suppresses citizen participation.

Don’t Impose a Costly Government Solution for a Nonexistent Problem
According to the Bill Analysis, SB 14 is intended to address a “potential loophole” in existing law that might result in problems. Voter impersonation is the only potential problem that could be addressed by requiring all voters to provide photo ID to prove their identity.

The good news is that current Texas voter identification procedures work, and there is no evidence of voter impersonation in Texas. There is no need for costly programs to provide photo IDs, establish new procedures, educate voters on new requirements, and train poll workers on new identification procedures.

Costs of implementing photo ID requirements in other states that have been substantial. Indiana, which has only about 1/4 the population of Texas, spent over $10 million in the first four years just to provide photo IDs for voting purposes. There are, of course, additional costs to educate voters (an additional $2.2 million in Indiana), re-train poll workers and elections officials, and defend the state against legal challenges. Estimated costs for implementation are $6 million for the first year in Missouri, and $18-25 million for the first three years in North Carolina.

Rather than proposing government programs for hypothetical problems, we can shift our attention to the many very real and well documented problems in Texas.

Don’t Disenfranchise Citizens
Texans understand that democracy requires active citizen involvement, and no form of involvement is more important than voting. The universal suffrage we take pride in today was achieved by those who persisted over decades against the odds. Texas should not turn back the clock by creating barriers that disenfranchise Texas citizens and needlessly limit voting rights.

For those who already have a state-issued photo ID that would allow them to vote, photo ID requirements may seem innocuous. However, many Texan citizens do not have one of the limited forms of ID required by SB 14. Based on the percentage of Texas citizens who register to vote without providing DPS identification, there may be 1 million or more voting eligible Texans without DPS photo ID. There are significant barriers to obtaining and maintaining a current photo ID for many Texas citizens, including young people, seniors, minorities, people with disabilities, students from out-of-state, and those with low incomes. The burden will be greatest for citizens who do not have the required documentation for an ID or for whom it is cost prohibitive or difficult to take off work, get transportation, stand in line, and apply for a photo ID.

Provisions in SB 14 for voters who turn 70 before Jan. 1, 2012, those with disabilities, and those with recently expired IDs or minor discrepancies between ID and voter registration do not completely address the fundamental problems of disenfranchisement.

Don’t Create Confusion and Suppress Voter Turnout
Many of us field questions during elections. We know Texas voters are often confused about requirements and discouraged from voting when they do not understand the process. New photo ID requirements complicate voting requirements and increase the time it will take to verify registration when a voter goes to the polls. This will further decrease the dismal turnout of eligible voters in Texas.

Texas Should Make It Easier for Citizens to Vote
Texas should make it easier for citizens to vote– not add costly restrictions and obstacles that will negatively impact all voters.

Photo ID legislation is a prime example of wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. Spending precious taxpayer dollars on a new government program, when our state has effective identification procedures already in place, will be seen by voters for what it really is– politics as usual at a time when essential state government services are being cut.

  • Project Vote
  • Common Cause Texas
  • Public Citizen Texas
  • Gray Panthers
  • Texas Civil Rights Project
  • League of Conservation Voters-Texas
  • Texas League of Young Voters
  • League of Women Voters-Texas

Andy Wilson, Public Citizen Texas, 512-670-8423
Anita Privett, LWV-TX, 512-524-0924 or 512-467-2674