Doubts are being raised as to whether the state’s controversial voter identification bill will be implemented on schedule because Texas does not ask its citizens their race when they register to vote.
As passed during the regular session of the 82nd Texas Legislature, Senate Bill 14 by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, would require that voters present a valid state-issued ID before casting a ballot. Gov. Rick Perry deemed the legislation an emergency item. It is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2012.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts have authority to review laws that would affect voter turnout before they are enacted. Last week the department asked for more information before it could render a decision on whether to grant Texas’ request for preclearance, which the Texas Secretary of State submitted in July.
The Justice Department seeks details about the 605,576 registered voters who do not currently possess a valid ID, including how many have Spanish surnames, which counties they reside in and an estimated breakdown by race. The Justice Department also requests that the state provide the same breakdown for the registered voters who currently possess a valid form of identification, or one that has expired within 60 days. The department requested the information to determine if SB 14 will “have neither the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."
The Texas Secretary of State’s office says it is working diligently to fulfill the department’s request, which also includes providing details about the state’s voter education program, but it says it cannot provide the racial breakdown as requested.
“We will not be able to provide race, since voters are not asked to provide race when registering to vote in Texas,” said Richard Parsons, the secretary’s communications director.
The Department of Justice declined to comment when asked what the repercussions could be if the state did not fulfill the request. It would only say it has an additional 60 days to render a decision once the state resubmits its request.
Attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which alleges the bill will infringe on minority groups’ voting rights, said failure to provide the information may likely delay the bill’s implementation.
“If the state can’t prove that it does not have a retrogressive effect — and the numbers seem to be showing there is an impact — we hope the DOJ will stand by it,” says MALDEF staff attorney Luis Figueroa. “We are on a time crunch. The law does not go into effect until it gets preclearance and if the state attempts to enact the law without preclearance they would be in violation of section 5.”
State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, the House sponsor of SB 14, said she is confident the department will approve the bill in time.
"Although I am disappointed that the Department of Justice did not approve all the provisions in the photo voter ID law at this time, the agencies responsible for the law's implementation will cooperate fully by responding to the DOJ's questions to the best of their ability," Harless said in a statement. "With the additional information, I am confident that the photo voter ID law will be fully approved by the DOJ."
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said that during the voter ID debate at the Capitol, amendments were offered that would have mandated the state study how many minorities would be affected by the bill. He said the proposals were shot down every time.
“The letter raises fundamental questions that should have been answered in advance of developing a far-reaching policy related to voting rights,” he said. “It is my belief the DOJ is asking them to produce very basic information that the state chose not to collect in advance.”
Parsons said that the state is also prepared to spend an estimated $2.5 million on the required voter education. It will soon issue a request for proposals “for the development and implementation of a comprehensive, statewide voter education and outreach program, as it has done in the past,” he said. An additional $100,00 has been allocated to purchase training materials for election judges, clerks and poll workers.