Confusion at the polls

Viviana Aldous

When the Legislature passed the contentious voter ID bill last spring, Texas joined six other states that require voters to present photo identification at the polls. The law, which awaits approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, still faces a number of uncertainties and will undoubtedly decrease voter turnout across the state.

Before the changes to the law, Texas voters only had to present their voter registration certificate or a document showing their name. Beginning Jan. 1, voters will be required to present a photo ID deemed acceptable by the law, such as a driver’s license. In the meantime, the law required the Secretary of State’s office and each county registrar to begin educating voters Thursday of the new requirement.

How the law will affect students, among other voters, is unclear, even to employees of the Secretary of State’s Elections Division and to the Travis County Clerk Elections Division. The law is ambiguous and leaves a number of questions unanswered. Many students’ driver’s licenses reflect their hometown addresses. Would a student registered to vote in Austin be able to use his or her driver’s license as a valid ID if it lists an address in Houston? For an out-of-state student registered to vote in Austin, would showing his or her Louisiana or New Mexico driver’s license be acceptable? Though the answer to these questions is likely yes, no official in the state or local elections divisions could confirm it.

With the photo requirement set to take effect in only four months, the uncertainty is troubling, particularly when considering the “voter identification education” period has supposedly begun. Without a set and well-publicized standard, counties and election poll workers may resort to arbitrary application of the new law. This confusion could lead to varied regulations and thus result in an unfair, non-uniform election.

Nevertheless, proponents of the new law argue that it will allow for more honest elections and thus increase voter turnout. “We will increase turnout for all voters because it protects our integrity of the election,” Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, author of the House version of the bill, said last spring, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “It makes you know that your vote counts.”

However, there is little evidence of voter fraud in the state, as Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said in March: “We have studied this for almost eight years and have not been able to find any widespread voter impersonation in Texas.”

Moreover, anyone without a valid form of photo ID must obtain an election ID from the Department of Public Safety to vote. Though the cards are free (and could thus cost the state up to $14 million, Anchia said, according to KXAN news), the inconvenience of obtaining the card will likely keep voters from the polls. Surely the new requirement will not persuade those who do not vote to go vote, and those who do vote but do not have a valid photo ID may not want to go to the trouble of obtaining one.

Increasing voting requirements and complicating the voting process will inevitably decrease the already-dismal voter turnout. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, for example, only 38 percent of registered voters in Texas showed up to the polls, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Steps must be taken by state and local officials to inform voters of the new regulations and examine their potential effects on national, state and local elections. With the presidential primary election only six months away, registered voters need to know whether they must fulfill additional requirements before they can vote.