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After early voting glitches, officials hope new voter ID rules clear

As a busy Election Day looms, election officials and civil rights advocates hope Texas has ironed out most wrinkles in complying with a federal court order to fix its voter ID law.

During the first week of early voting for the 2016 presidential elections, civil rights lawyers took issue with this sign outside of a polling place in Cuero. It did not mention options for casting a ballot without photo ID.

Two weeks of early voting revealed strains and missteps as Texas tried to comply with a court order reining in its voter ID law. When Election Day dawns, civil rights advocates, along with state and county officials, hope that most wrinkles have been ironed out for the ultimate test.

“I think there’s been a needed pressure on the counties, as well as a public awareness,” Marisa Bono, southwest regional counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund (MALDEF), said Friday — Texans’ last day to vote early before Tuesday’s anticipated poll rush. “We’ve certainly had less complaints this week than we did last week.”

Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, said her office was also fielding fewer calls from confused or concerned voters, making her optimistic Election Day will go smoothly.

Still, voting rights advocates are disappointed that some counties appeared unprepared to implement — or inform voters about — a court order allowing Texans without photo identification to cast ballots. And the initial hiccups highlight how strict voter ID laws can factor into elections even after courts order them fixed.

“This is a serious issue, and we can’t sweep it under the rug as isolated events or aberrations,” Bono said. “It’s clear that something happened systematically here, and we need to figure out what it was.”

Republican Texas lawmakers adopted the nation's strictest voter ID law in 2011, claiming they sought to bolster the integrity of elections by preventing voter fraud, which Gov. Greg Abbott calls "rampant." But critics argued that the law was intended to suppress voting by people least likely to have photo IDs, including minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.

The U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs, who pointed to comprehensive studies identifying in-person voter fraud as incredibly rare, challenged the law and notched a string of legal victories that prompted changes for this election.

In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the law discriminated against minority groups, who were less likely to possess one of seven accepted types of acceptable identification. In August, a federal judge ordered a temporary fix for the presidential election: Voters who possess photo ID must show it, but those who don't have — and cannot “reasonably obtain” — it can still cast a ballot. They must sign a form swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining photo ID and present an alternate form of ID.

Voter ID litigation continued its swift pace though September, when the judge ordered Texas to rewrite certain voter education materials, siding with those who accused the state of misleading voters on the softened requirements.

“It’s been a quick change in materials and information,” said Pierce, who called counties that “very responsive” to requests to address voter ID issues.  

Among the problems:

  • Some Texas polling stations displayed outdated information during early voting. In the first days, posters detailing the stricter 2011 rules — and omitting this year’s update — were spotted in parts of Dallas, Hayes, Denton, El Paso, McLennan, Travis and Bexar counties, according to the Texas Election Protection coalition, a combination of several civil rights groups that has fielded hundreds of voting complaints and inquiries.
  • In Dewitt County, election lawyers took issue with took issue with a notice outside of a polling place, documented by a Texas Tribune photographer, that stated only: PHOTO I.D.REQUIRED.” County elections officials did not return messages from the Tribune.
  • On the second day of early voting in Waller County, home of Prairie View A&M University, Elections Administrator Dan Teed told the Tribune that was unsure whether students could show their university IDs to cast a ballot under the revised rules— and that he was waiting for Cascos’ office to answer that question (The answer, he soon learned, was no.)
  • Perhaps most notable was Bexar County, where outdated posters were documented in at least 14 of 43 polling places during the first days of voting. MALDEF, which also objected to a telephonic voice recording that did not readily detail all ID options, sued the county and a state district judge ordered the county to address those items before the second week of voting began.

“The elections office has responded to all issues brought to its attention and corrected any issues that may have existed at the polling places when early voting began,” Jacque Callanen, Bexar County’s elections administrator, said following the order. “These issues were not significant and did not result in a single voter being disallowed to vote.”

Bono said she believed the lawsuit — and the media coverage it drew — helped spread awareness about such issues, reducing confusion across the state.

Voters also flagged another practice in several counties that was most prevalent during the first week of voting: that poll workers walking the lines were telling voters that photo ID was required but not detailing other options.

That included Harris County, where elections officials said workers were trained to give voters all options, but may have been overwhelmed by record turnout.

Similar issues bubbled up in Travis County. That included two reports that poll workers at one Austin polling station were telling people without photo IDs that they could not vote, according to ProPublica’s Electionland project.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said that her office immediately retrained those workers, and has worked with others to improve their messaging about ID requirements. She partly blamed the state for the confusion.

“It has been difficult, or complicated for us to train our people,” she said. “Because I don’t think the state of Texas did a good job providing us materials that made [the revised voter ID rules] sound simple and welcoming.”

The state, DeBeauvoir added, “wants to keep it complicated.”

Pierce, in the Secretary of State’s office, denied that allegation and pointed out that the federal judge specifically required some of the complex language to be included in educational materials. 

“We obviously have a burden to describing in a way that meets the legal requirements as close as possible – and some of the legal nuance of that,” she said. 

DeBeauvoir, who was among several county officials who spoke against voter ID legislation in 2011, suggested one way that Texas could have avoided the confusion: if lawmakers decided had refrained from passing the legally problematic law in the first place.

“Wouldn’t that have been nice,” she said.

Neena Satija and Nicole Cobler contributed to this report. 

Read more Tribune coverage of voting issues:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice is placing election monitors in Harris, Dallas and Waller counties for the general election.
  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the U.S.  Supreme Court to hear his arguments about why the state’s photo ID requirements for voting do not discriminate against Hispanics and African-American voters.
  • Texas taxpayers are still picking up the tab for defending the nation’s strictest voter identification law more than five years after Republicans fast-tracked it through the Legislature.

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2016 elections Voter ID