While most of the focus on the recently implemented Texas voter ID law has been related to allegations of racial discrimination, some online reports have recently raised concerns that the law could disenfranchise a different demographic: people who have legally changed their names, particularly women. But election officials say the concerns are unwarranted.
The media reports suggest that voters who lack an ID updated to reflect their legal name could be turned away from the polls. Women, who often change their name after marriage or divorce, are at a higher risk of disenfranchisement under the voter ID law, those reports say. But election officials deny the risk, saying protocols are in place for cases in which the name on a person's voter ID is not identical to his or her legal name.
"We encourage poll workers to look at the entirety of the ID," said Alicia Pierce, spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state's office. "If the names are similar but not identical, you sign an affidavit saying you're the same person."
State lawmakers passed the voter ID bill, which requires voters to show one of seven state- or federally issued forms of ID to vote, in 2011. But the November election will be the first statewide election with the law in effect, because it was kept on hold until a June U.S. Supreme Court decision made its implementation possible.
Many opponents of the law agree that the disenfranchisement claims for people with legally changed names are largely inaccurate, but they say the issue is a prime example of widespread confusion about the law as it takes effect.
“We don’t think [the voter ID law] will solve a real problem, and we think it creates real barriers to some voters and confusion to many,” said Linda Krefting, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. Still, she said she worries about the recent misinformation about the name changes. “That’s not a controversy we ought to be raising right now,” she said. “It’s just going to confuse people.”
The Texas election code requires that the names on a voter ID and in the voter registry be determined “substantially similar.” “If for some reason the poll judge thinks that your name is not substantially similar, then you might be required to vote provisionally,” Pierce said, adding that the provisional voting is a “last line of defense.” Provisional ballots allow people to vote when questions remain about their eligibility. Whether the vote is counted depends on a voter's eligibility, evaluated later. Pierce said poll workers were encouraged in most cases to “err on the side of the voter.”
Nonetheless, “people don’t have the faintest clue about the particulars of this voter ID law,” said Sondra Haltom, president of Empower the Vote Texas.
Haltom said some people with legally changed names who lack voter ID have struggled to obtain an election identification certificate, one of the seven forms of acceptable voter ID. “It particularly affects older women who took their husband’s name when they married,” she said. “Many older women don’t have their marriage certificate lying around, and frankly they don’t realize initially that they need it, because this is something that just really came to light recently.” Only 41 people have successfully applied for an election identification certificate to date, she said. People who fail to procure one will not have their provisional ballot counted if they lack the other six forms of ID.
Another group facing confusion about the voter ID law is the transgender community. Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, an LGBT advocacy group, said that about 27 percent of Texans with a history of gender transition — about 6,000 potential voters — do not have a photo ID that reflects their gender expression. He worries that many members of the community will refrain from voting because they’re afraid an apparent mismatch on their IDs would be a problem.
“We are very concerned that this could be an obstacle to people participating in their democracy,” he said. “With all these new changes to the process, it’s really important that the public understands how it works now. This isn’t traditional voting.” In the event that an election judge does not accept their identification, transgender voters can fill out a provisional ballot, Williams said.
Pierce said the secretary of state's office had a “comprehensive education campaign” in several languages, including a YouTube channel, but stressed that more education will improve voter turnout. Early voting started Monday.
“The more people can do to help us, the better our results will be,” she said.