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Trump administration: Trust Texas on voter education spending

Federal courts should trust Texas to properly educate voters on new ID rules ahead of the 2018 elections instead of insisting that money be spent on a marketing campaign, President Trump’s justice department argues.

Voters line up at an early voting station in Houston on Oct. 24, 2016. Poll workers said the lines were much longer than normal for early voting.

Federal courts should trust Texas to properly educate voters on new ID rules ahead of the 2018 elections instead of insisting that money be spent on a marketing campaign, President Trump’s justice department argued in a filing Monday.

The filing, part of the Trump administration's recent support for Texas in its years-long battle over the state's 2011 voter ID law, comes despite widespread criticism of Texas' voter education efforts ahead of the 2016 election.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is considering what, if any, consequences Texas should face following her April ruling that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters by passing the nation’s strictest voter ID law six years ago.

Texas and the justice department argue a softened ID requirement — Senate Bill 5, which was signed into law in June — fixes any discrimination problems, and judges should wash their hands of the case. That includes holding Texas accountable for educating voters on the latest changes ahead of the next election. 

Civil rights groups challenging the state want Ramos to scrap the new version of the law, SB 5, ahead of the 2018 election, arguing it neither absolves Texas from its past discrimination nor properly accommodates voters going forward. If SB 5 stays on the books, the plaintiffs want Ramos to set specific parameters for how Texas spends money on voter education. The new law, they note, does not include an education campaign.

The justice department’s response: Take Texas at its word that it will properly educate voters.

“There is no requirement that the state’s voter education and training program be memorialized in statute,” the department's filing states, adding, "any concerns regarding the state’s completion of its voter education and training efforts provide no occasion” to halt the new ID law.

The justice department says Texas has promised to spend $4 million on voter education in the next two years by way of the state budget, and to “send written notice to every active registered Texas voter.”

The new law “therefore fully remedies any discriminatory effect in Texas’s voter ID law,” the filing states.   

But minority groups argue the state “has not 'committed' itself to anything," and they want Ramos to step in. 

They also called Texas’ past education campaigns “abysmally poor,” citing previous court rulings.

Ramos temporarily softened the 2011 ID rules ahead of the 2016 general election, and the new law somewhat follows her lead.  It would allow people without photo ID to vote if they present alternate forms of ID and sign affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

In that ruling, Ramos ordered Texas to spend $2.5 million on ID education efforts before the 2016 election, but the campaign — a mix of television and radio advertisements and online media — fell short, research and news reports suggest. Particularly during early voting, Texans reported poll workers sharing inaccurate or incomplete information about the ID law, and some polling places displaying inaccurate information on posters.

“What was clear was, Texas voters did not have a good understanding of what the photo ID rules were in 2016,” Mark P. Jones of the University of Houston and Rice University told The Texas Tribune in April. Jones was part of a team that surveyed voters on their knowledge of the ID law.  

“The Texas Secretary of State’s office could have done a much better job," he added, "although, of course, they need the resources to do it.”

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, declined to comment Tuesday.  

Jones has called it unrealistic to expect the Secretary of State's Office to educate would-be voters across the vast state with just $2.5 million — a sum better suited to reach folks in just one of Texas’ 36 congressional districts.

Researchers can't analyze how effectively the agency used its scarce resources for education because it has refused to release key details, such as where it purchased television and radio advertisements to publicize the relaxation of the ID requirements ahead of the 2016 election. That secrecy was supported by a ruling from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

"I think we need to know where and how the money is currently being spent before we can say whether or not it is enough,” said state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, a San Antonio Democrat who sponsored a failed bill during the 2017 legislative session that would have required disclosure. “Without transparency, how can we trust that the money is being spent to adequately educate our voters?” 

Pablos' office has said disclosing such information would expose trade secrets of private media firms who contract with the state.

Disclosure: Rice University and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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