Originally Published May 14, 2014

By Zenitha Prince

In Texas, everything seems to be bigger—oversized hats and belt-buckles, oversized houses and geography, oversized personalities and now an oversized voter identification law that activists say is one of the worst cases of voter suppression in the United States.

“Texas’ voter ID law in many ways is the most restrictive in the country,” said Vishal Agraharkar, counsel, Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “At the end of the day, it will prevent hundreds of thousands of Texans from being able to cast their votes…. It is disheartening to say the least.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed the voter ID bill, SB 14, into law on May 27, 2011.

With the cliché of voter fraud as its impetus, the bill banned all non-photographic IDs as acceptable for voting. Unlike other states, student IDs, expired IDs, government-issued mail and other previously accepted identifiers were no longer acceptable, only: a driver’s license or personal ID card issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety; a license to carry a concealed handgun; a U.S. military ID card; a U.S. citizenship certificate with photograph; or a U.S. passport.

The bill also narrowed the range of documents residents could use to obtain a voter ID.

Advocates argued the law disproportionately targeted minorities, women—who are more likely to undergo a name change—and other groups.

“In Texas you can use a gun registration to vote but not a student ID. So you can see the discrepancy in the type of person this law targets,” said Diallo Brooks, director of outreach and partner engagement, People for the American Way.

“There were clear partisan, political motivations for because the way African Americans, students, the poor and the elderly have voted has not always favored a certain party.”

The Department of Justice agreed and challenged SB 14 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, saying it abridged minorities’ voting rights since a disproportionate number of Hispanic voters lacked the required IDs. And, in August 2012, a federal court in Washington, D.C., upheld that challenge, calling Texas’ voter ID law “the most stringent in the country.”

“That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty,” the court opinion read.

Almost one year later, the voting rights landscape violently shifted when the Supreme Court dropped a bomb—the Shelby v. Holder decision that hamstringed the VRA’s Section 5 provision, which required states like Texas with a history of discrimination against minority voters to obtain federal preclearance before making election changes.

Within a few hours of the ruling, Texas announced it was reinstating its disputed voter ID law and redistricting plan.

The Shelby decision gave “free rein” to states that were previously covered under Section 5, Brooks said, and “opened up the floodgates in Texas and all over the country for discriminatory practices to take place.”

Brooks said he would not be surprised if more statewide voter suppression initiative such as contracted early voting periods are passed in Texas.

“I think there are some legislators who are poised and ready to push such legislation,” he said. “As long as there are folks who think there’s a political advantage for their party, they are willing to do that.”

In meantime, since Shelby, “more subtle forms of blocking access to the ballot box—changing polling places, limiting polling places—are happening at the administrative level,” Brooks said.

Agraharkar agreed, saying, “There are a lot of ways in which minor changes in methods of election can dilute minority voting rights.”

In Beaumont, Texas, for example, White conservatives succeeded in gaining control of a previously Black-majority school board. Before Shelby, the Justice Department had blocked attempts to replace two single-member districts of the school district with at-large districts, from which it was highly unlikely that African Americans could successfully elect their candidates of choice; and to shorten without notice, the terms of the three incumbent minority candidates and block them from re-election.

A similarly successful change was implemented in Pasadena, Texas, where Hispanics comprise one-third of its estimated 150,000 residents. In November 2013, an extremely slim majority of voters—87—passed an amendment that changed how city council districts are allocated. The rule eliminated two predominantly Hispanic single-member districts, while creating two at-large districts that could then be decided by the town’s White majority.

Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell crowed after the change was made, “The Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do,” according to an MSNBC video recording.

“It’s these type of changes at the local level that go unnoticed but that’s harder to litigate without Section 5,” Agraharkar said.

“The nice thing about Section 5 was it did a lot of work for attorneys,” he added.

“We will have to be a lot more vigilant and will have to spend resources combatting these laws…. Lawyers have to fight back with case-by-case litigation that’s harder to win, costly and takes more time.”

Still, advocacy groups are forging ahead. The Brennan Center is one of several groups that has filed lawsuits to undo SB 14. And others are working at the legislative level.

“The good news is that there are efforts underway—groups like ours, the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—have been working hard to come up with a legislative solution,” Brooks said.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to come up with a new formula—Section 4—to determine which jurisdictions qualify for oversight under the VRA. Agraharkar and others say they are hopeful of bipartisan support.

“One thing that gives us hope is the history of the Voting Rights Act in recent decades—in 2006, both parties came together and voted almost unanimously to renew the Voting Rights Act for 25 years,” he said. “We think the parties can come together now. If not now, then in the near future or next year.”

–Texas claimed it would impose only a “minor inconvenience” on voters but evidence showed 81 (out of 254) of Texas’ counties have no DPS office and 34 others have offices open only two days a week or less.

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO