Time to put a fair voter ID law in place for Texas

Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

I’ve been back in court again defending every Texas voter’s ability to participate freely in our elections, because current Texas leaders insist on using their power to enforce a voting law that limits fair access to the ballot and restricts rather than protects democracy.

Certainly, Texas needs a voting system that is free and fair to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. Our democracy works best when all citizens can participate. One of the best and most secure ways to meet this important goal is to simply recognize Texan’s voter registration cards as voter identification. Instead, Texas state leaders have used their power to pass and then impose severe and discriminatory restrictions on voting.

Here is the backstory.

In 2011, Texas Republican leaders passed what the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called “the strictest and perhaps most poorly implemented voter ID law in this country.” To protect the rights of Texas voters, I challenged the law in court.

Since then, many courts have reviewed the Texas law, ruling each time that it illegally discriminates against Texas voters. After spending more than $3.5 million defending their discriminatory law, state leaders still have been unable to win their argument.

After their last loss in court, state leaders were forced to change the voter ID law, in part, to allow voters without the certain types of required ID to vote. However, Texas leaders laid out a process and requirements that confuse and discourage voters while doing nothing to protect our elections.

The problem has never been requiring an ID to cast a ballot. It’s in the types of IDs required by the state. Leaders have carefully selected IDs they know will exclude certain groups. Instead of accepting equally all state-issued photo IDs, they picked and chose which IDs were “acceptable.” For example, a license to carry a concealed firearm is permissible, but federal and state government employee IDs and student IDs are not.

Over 600,000 eligible registered Texas voters do not have the IDs needed under the Texas law. Obtaining a photo ID can be expensive, and in many cases, requires distant travel to government offices. Even the supporting documents to obtain an ID — like a birth certificate — can be hard to come by. Millions of elderly Americans were born at home, rather than in hospitals, and did not receive birth certificates. So, asking Texans to just go get another ID is not a simple task.

State leaders now claim they have “fixed” the law. Not quite.

In 2016, after losing court battles, Texas was forced to allow those without one of the required forms of ID to vote if they signed declarations swearing to their identity and that there was a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining the necessary ID. This was a hard-won improvement on the law, providing people who were previously barred from voting a way to cast ballots in the 2016 elections. However, the more reasonable rules were for use only in those elections.

Now Texas leaders have tacked on new barriers for voters. They altered the “reasonable impediment” language to limit the allowed excuses to a few pre-written explanations — and then added a threat of jail if those declarations aren’t entirely accurate. This requirement doesn’t improve the integrity of our elections. It’s only purpose is to confuse, intimidate and suppress participation in our elections.

The best way forward is simple. The pre-2011 system is a good place to start. It allowed voters to prove their identity with their voter registration card. As the 5th Circuit has said, a voter registration card is a “more secure document,” “not as easily obtained by another person,” “nondiscriminatory” and “free of charge.” Texas leaders should return to the drawing board to develop nondiscriminatory and evenhanded procedures.

Marc Veasey

U.S. Representative, D-Fort Worth