Does the Texas Voter ID Law Discriminate Against Blacks, Hispanics?

Hispanic leaders say that the Texas voter-identification law is a political move by the GOP to suppress the voting rights of blacks, Latinos, and students, who have historically favored Democrats, camouflaged as a solution to problems of voter fraud.

The Texas Voter ID law and others around the country aim to reverse the gains made during the civil-rights era, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous told a massive crowd during the organization's convention.

"This battle against voter suppression is not about stopping a new chapter in American history as much as it is about keeping a very bad chapter in our democracy from repeating itself again," Jealous told the crowd during the national conference in Houston last week. He urged NAACP members to work aggressively to register people to vote and mobilize them to show up at the polls this November.

A three-judge panel is set to determine whether the voter-identification law violates the Federal Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to protect minorities' right to vote, and would unfairly hurt Latinos and blacks in the Lone Star State. It's likely that the federal judges will make a decision by August, said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who leads the Latino Caucus in the state House and who testified against the law. If the court fails to give the law "preclearance," the case could head to the Supreme Court.

There's a general sense among civil-rights groups of a sudden wave of legislation threatening to suppress voting rights of Latinos, blacks, students, low-income voters, and those with disabilities ahead of the presidential elections. Eleven states have passed laws that would require voters to show some type of identification since 2001, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan public-policy institute. Four of those states — New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — clearly are political battlegrounds. The Texas law has been deemed the strictest so far.

Nationally, these laws could tilt the political landscape, as it could affect 5 million eligible voters in November. "The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012--63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency," according to the study. Texas is one of 16 states that require the preclearance of the federal government before changing its voter laws because of its voting discrimination in the past.

"This bill was passed under immigration and racial tensions "¦ and it had little to do with rejecting voter fraud," said Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. But the state is quick to highlight that Latino and black elected officials, including five Latinos and two blacks, voted for S.B. 14 to discredit those charges.

The Texas voter-identification law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, requires voters to show one of four types of accepted identifications to cast a ballot: a driver's license, military identification card, U.S. citizenship certificate that contains a photograph, or a gun permit.

Those who lack a driver's license, passport, or military identification can get a voter-identification card for free from the state's Public Safety Department, according to the attorney general of Texas's website. But even if Texans can get the card for free, some of them would need to travel more than 100 miles, sometimes in extreme weather, each way. Martinez Fischer said that 70 counties have no DPS office. "These folks, very few of them have cars, have reliable cars, [or] can get off work," state Sen. Carlos Uresti, a Democrat from San Antonio, said in his testimony.

Martinez Fischer, a leading critic of the law, said the state showed little evidence that rampant in-person voter fraud has taken place. Since the 2008 and 2010 elections, there have been two cases of voter impersonation. One of those cases, he said, raised a question about whether the person had the mens rea, or her state of mind, to commit voter fraud. He charged legislators with passing the law based on one criminal prosecution at the expense of thousands.

Representatives for the states, however, insist that voter-identification requirements are needed to protect the integrity of the ballot. Republican state Rep. Jose Aliseda has said there's a public perception of fraud. "They do not have confidence in the system. They take the position, 'Why vote if my vote's going to be canceled out by a fraudulent vote?' " Aliseda told NPR last week. Sen. Tommy Williams, who supports the law, testified that his grandfather died in 1935, but ballots continued to be cast in his name.

As to how many Texans will be affected, those numbers remain to be seen. Both sides have charged the other with presenting "flawed" data to gauge the extent of the impact. The Justice Department argues the number involves about 1.5 million people. But Texas officials say that number is highly inflated, with the truer count closer to 795,000. "No matter whose side you want to believe "¦ we can at least say there will be Texans impacted — we know that," Martinez Fischer said.

Civic organizations like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, which already have a tough time getting Hispanics registered to vote, will have an even harder task motivating people this November, they say. Not only will they need to educate Hispanics and blacks, who respectively make up more than 37 percent and 11 percent of eligible voters, about when and where to vote, but voter advocates will also need massive campaigns to inform people about proper identifications needed to bring to the booth or where to get a voter ID card — all in fewer than four months.

"All these processes take time and money," Figueroa said.