By Melissa Jensen
Election Day on November 5 marked the first time Texas’ controversial voter ID laws were affected in the state. And the results were mixed. There is little evidence that the law suppressed voter turnout. Out of the state’s 13.4 million registered voters, only 1.1 million cast ballots in the 2013 election, about 8.5 percent of the electorate. Compare this to 2011 and 2009, other election “off years.” In 2011 when only 5.4 percent of voters showed up. In 2009, about 1 million people cast ballots, about 8.1 percent of the electorate. So as far as the numbers go, voting seemed on par.
However, the law lost some PR points with some high publicity hiccups, including several prominent politicians initially being told they couldn’t get a new voter identification card vote because they lacked proper identification. State Senator Wendy Davis, the front-running Democratic candidate for governor next year, had to sign an affidavit because her married name did not match her driver’s license . State Attorney General Greg Abbott, a champion of the law was also flagged because his license listed his name as “Gregory Wayne Abbott” while his voter registration record simply calls him “Greg Abbott.” And former U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright couldn’t get his new voter ID at first because his driver’s license had expired.
With the election now past, attention turns again to Texas’ litigation over the law with the Department of Justice. The Department announced on August 22 that it would be challenging the voter ID law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the voting guarantees in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution. In the suit, the complaint contends that the voter ID law was “adopted with the purpose, and will have the result, of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”
It’s hard to say if the recent election will have an effect on the government’s case. It may be difficult to prove that the law’s purpose is to deny racial or language groups the right to vote when there’s little evidence of any such voter suppression in practice. However, this year’s election is probably not a good indicator of the law’s real effects. With only Constitutional amendments and city ordinances on the ballots, the election likely drew only the electoral faithful, who made sure they had the proper ID. Next year, however, will include a high profile gubernatorial election with no incumbent, which will draw much larger crowds. This may give a more accurate view of the true effects of the law and how far-reaching they are.
On the other hand, the lack of disparate effect on the election might also reinforce the perception that there is no legitimate government interest. Before the law was implemented, the Texas Attorney General had only pursued 66 cases charges of voting irregularities since 2004. Only four of those cases involved illegally casting a ballot where a picture ID could have prevented it. With so few cases of fraud, there was already doubt about Texas’ proclaimed need for a voter ID law. If the law in implementation also doesn’t prevent any voter fraud, but instead causes problems for gubernatorial candidates and the Attorney General himself, claims of voter fraud may look even weaker.
No matter what the outcome, this case will set an important precedent. With similar litigation already going forward in North Carolina, the Texas case will direct future laws and lawsuits. If Texas succeeds, we may see voter ID laws jump in other states, or current laws become more restrictive. If the government prevails, however, it will cause hesitancy in other states to pass similar laws. Also, it will strengthen Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the government’s ability to bring cases through it.