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Low Turnout or Bad Law?: Voter ID Effects Uncertain

Turnout boost heaviest in counties with local referendums

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 15, 2013

The turnout numbers from the Nov. 5 election recall the gnomic phrases of former Defense Department Sec. Donald Rumsfeld trying to explain what went wrong in Iraq. There are the "known knowns" – how many people turned up to vote, and how they voted. There are the "known unknowns" – how many people had trouble voting because of the state's stringent new voter ID law. And then there are the "unknown unknowns": What kept 91.5% of Texans away from the polls, and what role did that law play? The answers to the latter could become exhibit A in the ongoing federal legal challenges to the Texas rules.

This was the first election under the new photo ID law passed in 2011. Republicans and statewide officials pointed out that, with 1,144,844 ballots cast statewide, turnout was actually higher than in the last two constitutional elections: 2009 (1,058,986 votes cast) and 2011 (690,052). On Oct. 25, Secretary of State John Steen issued a press release noting that, in the first four days of early voting, almost 95,000 Texans had cast a ballot in the state's 15 largest counties. "That is more than double the 45,379 voters who voted at the same point in 2011, the most recent constitutional amendment election."

However, that pattern did not continue. By the end of e-day, voting had slowed significantly, placing the final statewide results less than 0.4% higher than the 2009 turnout of registered voters: 8.51%, up from 8.13%. Look back any further, and those statistics look less impressive. As a percentage of registered voters, the 2013 election is only the fifth biggest of the last nine constitutional amendment elections, and is lower than half the 2005 turnout for the ban on same-sex marriage.

Moreover, it seems that any turnout boost – minor as it was – was a response to local issues. Of the 15 largest counties in the state, those with the highest turnout voted on major local issues. Frontrunner Nueces turned out heavily (14.24%) to defeat a $44.6 million bond package to renovate the Corpus Christi* beachfront. Travis (13.75%) balloted the House District 50 special and the city of Austin affordable housing bond. And Harris (13.21%) had the mayoral election and the vote on the future of the Astro­dome. In fact, shamefully low turnouts in major counties like Dallas (5.99%) and El Paso (3.58%) meant the statewide election was mostly a coastal contest: Between them, Nueces and Harris accounted for a quarter of the 1,144,844 ballots cast statewide.

Crucial questions remain: How did voter ID affect turnout, who was able to vote, and how easy was the process? Nine of 10 registered Texas voters stayed home – but how many simply failed to vote, and how many lacked the paperwork? The supposed effort to provide free photo IDs to voters was an unmitigated flop – by election day, only 104 were issued statewide.

Even those who made it to the ballot box with ID had problems. During early voting and on e-day, anecdotal evidence of problems flooded in, mostly via Twitter. Normally not the most reliable of resources, the buzz-feed was lent extra credibility when Texas Observer associate editor Forrest Wilder tweeted that the magazine's controller Krissi Trumeter "was just told she couldn't vote with a U.S. passport even though that's an approved form of voter ID." It took half an hour of arguing before she could exercise her democratic right.

The names are as embarrassing for Texas as the numbers. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, was required to sign an affidavit affirming her identity because her driver's license uses her maiden name, Russell, as her middle name. In a moment of dramatic irony, even Attorney General Greg Abbott – or, as his license calls him, "Gregory Wayne Abbott" – had similar problems at the voting booth. Because the ID and the name on the voter roll were not identical, both had to sign affidavits confirming they were who they said they were.

In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated that the bond package was to renovate the Galveston beachfront.

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