Block the Vote

If you can't beat 'em, disenfranchise 'em

Pat Crow (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Pat Crow has spent a lifetime experiencing the events most of us just read about in the paper. She was in occupied Japan as the child of a military officer stationed there. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Crow was two blocks away, having just seen his motorcade pass by. In 1971, Crow was at the founding meeting of the Texas Women's Political Caucus, along with Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan. Twenty years later, she ran the campaign to elect Glen Maxey, who became the first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature. Now, at 73, Crow finds herself part of the story once again: She's one of the thousands who have been disenfranchised because of Texas' Voter ID law.

Fixing What Wasn't Broke

In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 14, requiring would-be voters to present one of seven types of ID in order to cast a ballot: a Texas driver's license, ID card, handgun license, or election identification certificate, or a U.S. passport, military ID card, or citizenship certificate. In order to be valid, the ID presented must either be current or have expired no more than 60 days prior.

Ostensibly, the goal of voter ID was to prevent election fraud by making sure voters are who they say they are. However, considering that voter fraud has become nearly nonexistent, and that there are plenty of other forms of valid ID a legislature might allow if they actually wanted to encourage voting, one couldn't help but suspect that there might be some other motive in play.

When it comes to voting laws, motive is supposed to count. The United States, the South particularly, has a long, ignominious history of making sure that people who have the constitutional right to vote don't get to exercise it. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to put a stop to that. Section 5 of the VRA required that before any change in voting law could go into effect, state and local governments with a history of discrimination against minority voters had to get preclearance from the U.S. attorney general or a panel of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. This was to ensure that any change would not have the effect of "deny[ing] or abridg[ing] the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group." Section 4(b) of the VRA contained the formula for determining which state and local governments would need preclearance. Texas is included on the list of state governments that needed preclearance, and the Voter ID law was clearly an example of the sort of change that would need preclearance.

There were many who were appalled by Texas' Voter ID law, but figured it would never stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny. A three-judge panel found that the law did indeed have a discriminatory effect, violating Section 5. Unfortunately for opponents of the law, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the VRA, saying that the formula for determining which states needed preclearance was 40 years old and did not speak to "current conditions." Therefore Texas no longer needed preclearance, and Voter ID was allowed to go into effect, despite the district court's previous finding. In 2015, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Voter ID had an unconstitutionally discriminatory effect, but declined to prevent it from taking effect while litigation is ongoing. In the end, Voter ID may be struck down by the Supreme Court for having an unconstitutionally discriminatory effect. But for the time being, as the case winds its way through the court system, damage is being done.

When Voter ID was first passed, Travis County Registrar Bruce Elfant asked the secretary of state to provide the number of registered Travis County voters without valid state identification. It's impossible for the secretary of state to check whether those voters have any of the accepted U.S. IDs, which are issued by the federal rather than the state government. So not all of the 37,000 voters the SOS reported being without valid DPS IDs have necessarily had to choose between getting a new ID and staying home from the polls. But even taking that into account, 37,000 is significant, especially when the outcome of local elections can turn on as few as 57 votes (see "Tax Hawk Wins by a Feather," Dec. 19, 2014).

Proof of Residency

Crow's first vote cast was for LBJ. It was 1964, and she had just turned 21, the legal voting age at the time. But even before she could vote, she had been passionate about politics. She recalls debating a high school classmate who claimed that JFK, as a Catholic, would be a tool of the pope, and arguing with pro-segregationist students while she was attending Southwest Texas State. Once she was able to vote, she never missed an election.

In 1982, Crow left her job as a financial planner for IBM for a career in politics. Crow's decision was born out of tragedy. In 1981, a close friend of Crow's, Cindy, was murdered by an ex-fiancé. Before her murder, the man had stalked and harassed Cindy. Although she had reported him to the police, and tried to get a peace bond (that era's version of a temporary restraining order) to protect herself, nothing was done. Justice of the Peace Charles Webb deferred the hearing for the bond for six months. By then, she was already dead. When Webb was up for re-election in 1982, Crow joined his opponent's team, successfully managing Debra Ravel's campaign for the seat.

Since then, Crow has run 30 more campaigns, and won 27 of them (the first one she lost was Elfant's first campaign – "She still hasn't forgiven me," he says). "I was always tough," says Crow, and at 73, she's still tough. After a massive stroke in 2008, Crow was afflicted with severe aphasia. Her doctors predicted she'd live the rest of her life in a nursing home. Instead, with the help of her family, she made her way through intensive therapy at Austin Speech Labs and regained her ability to communicate – volubly. The Chronicle awarded her Best Comeback in 2009, saying "she defied the odds."

But the stroke ended her career, and has forced her to give up other things as well, including driving. Because she can't legally drive, right now Crow's only DPS-issued form of ID is an expired license. She didn't realize that would keep her vote from counting in this year's primary.

At the poll, Crow showed the election judge her license, her voter registration card, and a current Capital Metro card with her picture on it. None of those, of course, was valid. Crow was allowed to cast a provisional ballot, which she could come back and "cure" by presenting valid ID within six days. Her son took her to DPS to get a personal ID card, but she didn't have the documentation she needed for that, either. Despite bringing the expired license, her birth certificate, and her Capital Metro card, Crow didn't have the required "proof of residency." A DPS worker told her she could use a utility bill, but since Crow's daughter pays her bill, Crow's name isn't on it.

It's possible that Crow could have gotten the combination of documents she needed in time to get an election identification certificate, which has a slightly different set of requirements than the personal ID card, but neither she nor anyone in her family were able to figure out how to get her a proper ID within the six-day window.

"We Miss People Altogether"

That is the crux of the problem with the law: It's so byzantine that someone as indefatigable and politically savvy as Crow gets stymied trying to follow it. If, like a lot of people, you carry a Texas driver's license with you, it seems like no big deal to have to present it at the poll. It's only when you're without one of the seven forms of ID that you realize how hard it is – even if you meet all the requirements – to provide the documents proving that.

Proponents of Voter ID argue that there's no reason for an eligible voter to be disenfranchised by it. A passport might be expensive, and some might not have the money to afford an up-to-date Texas ID card (it's $16), but Texas election identification certifi­cates are free, they point out. However, they leave out the fact that many of the documents needed to get an EIC are not. A copy of your birth certificate, if you don't happen to have one already, will cost you $23 at a minimum in Travis County, and – how's this for a fun Catch-22? – if you ask for it by mail or in person, you can't get a copy without providing current government-issued ID. If you order by phone or by Internet, your identity can potentially be verified, but you have to pay with a card, and "additional processing and shipping fees apply." Again, this might seem like no big deal to many people. It's only really a problem for those too poor to be able to afford to keep a bank account open.

But, it turns out, that's a lot of people: 10.4% of Texas households don't have a bank account, according to a 2013 FDIC study; the national average is 7.7%. The numbers differ vastly by race: 20% of black Texas households and 18% of Hispanics don't have a bank account, compared to 3.1% of whites and 2.9% of Asians.

Of course, not having the money to get your documents in order is just one of the obstacles to getting one of the seven valid voter IDs. There's also the matter of being able to access a DPS office. In Austin, we have a few to choose from; in 68 rural counties, there is no DPS office.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir says that it's impossible to know how many people don't cast a vote because of Voter ID, because: "We miss people altogether. If people think something's wrong [with their ID], they won't go vote." The idea of being turned away in front of everyone is embarrassing to potential voters, she argues.

A Renewed Focus

Paper voter registration forms at the Travis County Registrar (Photo by John Anderson)

Voter ID makes it difficult for registered voters to cast votes. Texas' rules surrounding voter registration make it difficult to register to vote in the first place.

For the most part, the federal government has left the administration of the voting process to the states. Each state gets to dictate how to register voters, how long early voting periods last, and what types of ballots to use, among other things.

While there are 35 states that have laws allowing online voter registration, Texas is not one of them. The Legislature has claimed that online registration would be insecure and easily tampered with. Elfant and other advocates for online registration point out that paper registration has its own problems. It takes many man hours for county employees to enter the data from handwritten cards into the system, and in the end, there are stacks of cards that are indecipherable.

Then, there's the confusion surrounding Texas' implementation of what's known as the "motor voter" law. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, which was designed to "enhance voting opportunities for every American." The motor voter portion of the act requires that "every time an eligible voter obtains, renews, or updates his or her driver's license, the state must simultaneously offer to register that person to vote or to update the voter's registration record."

If someone makes the trip to the DPS office, they simply fill out a voter registration card while they're there. However, Texas allows online driver's license renewal and address updates. The online process ends with a screen that asks the user whether they want to register to vote. However, when someone checks "yes," DPS doesn't register them. Instead, that person is directed to a separate site, where they're instructed to print, fill out, and mail in a voter registration form.

In March, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit claiming that DPS' implementation violates the NVRA. TCRP Exec­u­tive Director Mimi Marziani tells the Chron­icle, "Not only does that clearly on its face violate federal law, but we also argue that it violates the U.S. Constitution, because you're treating voters differently just because one goes in to DPS in person and the other decides to go online." The online process, she says, "is not under anyone's interpretation a simultaneous opportunity."

Marziani says that during previous efforts to avoid litigation, the secretary of state has told TCRP's plaintiffs that they don't believe the VRA reaches online transactions. But Marziani says that doesn't comport with established interpretations of laws passed before the Internet was widely in use. "In every other area of the law, you assume the same rules govern online transactions. It's not common for a transaction to be carved out just because it's online."

The lawsuit is part of TCRP's renewed focus on voting rights. Marziani, who became executive director last year after founder Jim Harrington stepped down after 25 years leading the organization, brings with her an expertise in and passion for voting rights. Focusing on registration is important, she says, because "there are some important symbolic messages sent by the ease with which somebody can register to vote. If somebody at the outset finds this process to be extremely difficult, they are just going to be more hesitant to go forward with the process. We also know that voting is habit-forming, particularly when you're dealing with younger Texans. It's so important that we get them on the rolls and they cast a ballot that counts, because they're setting themselves up for the rest of their lives."

Although Elfant can't change the registration system, he does what's within his power to encourage Travis County residents to register. People who want to fill out a registration card from the comfort of their own home can text "Register" to the number 48683 (IVOTE) to request that a form be sent to them. Mailing the form back is free.

The Travis County office also deputizes volunteer voter registrars at a Herculean rate. Elfant says he personally conducted 200 trainings last year. People interested in becoming deputy registrars can either attend one of the trainings that are held the first Tuesday of the month at the tax office, or they can get together 10 or more people and request that someone come to them.

A Lost Vote

The Supreme Court has been asked to reconsider allowing Voter ID to remain in effect while litigation continues. Because the court's previous ruling dealt partly with timing (their decision would have reversed the 5th Circuit shortly before an election date), plaintiffs are now arguing that the ruling should not apply to this year's November election, since Texas would have plenty of time to prepare.

At her apartment in Brentwood on a Sunday afternoon, Crow and her sister Barbara Rush recount for the Chronicle Crow's life in Austin politics. Crow displays the letter she received notifying her that her ballot was rejected. Just out the window, campaign signs line the top of the fence around her porch: All of them are for candidates who ran in the primary. "I didn't get to vote for any of them," she says.

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Pat Crow, Texas Voter ID, Voting Rights Act, Bruce Elfant, Texas Civil Rights Project

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