Texas officials have spent years in court fighting to keep their state’s controversial 2011 voter-ID law alive. The law, one of the toughest in the U.S., requires Texans to show some form of government-issued identification at their polling place. Under a court-approved August compromise with the Department of Justice, Texas must allow voters who show up without a driver’s license or other photo ID to sign a sworn affidavit stating that they’d encountered an impediment to obtaining the required documents before Election Day.
On Sept. 20, the federal district judge who oversaw the August agreement denied a plea from the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Dallas and Hidalgo counties claiming Harris County clerk Stan Stanart and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton were effectively intimidating voters by publicly suggesting that people who filed affidavits could be criminally prosecuted if it turned out they’d been issued driver’s licenses or other IDs in the past. “If you sign that affidavit and you lie about not being able to get a photo ID, you can be prosecuted for perjury,” Paxton told Fox News on Aug. 18.
The judge’s ruling was a victory for Stanart, an active member of the state Republican Party whose campaign website touts him as “the proven conservative leader.” Harris County, which covers Houston, is the biggest in Texas and third-largest in the U.S., with a population the size of Kentucky. Early voting in Texas starts on Oct. 24.
Stanart says he’s already compared lists of registered voters against state driver’s license records so that his staff will be prepared to spot any affidavits filed by people who should have had appropriate ID. “If we suspect that they’re doing it intentionally and doing it for fraudulent purposes, I’m going to be inclined to turn them over to the DA,” says Stanart, who worked in the county tax office before he was elected county clerk in 2010. “We will have chaos if we don’t have people that are willing to follow the law.”
Texas isn’t the only state dealing with last-minute changes in how voter-ID laws can be implemented. Over the summer, federal judges overturned North Carolina’s ID requirement and decreed that Wisconsin accept expired student IDs, as well as expedite IDs for voters who’ve had difficulty acquiring them.
Civil rights advocates say the threat of fraud is overblown. A 2014 analysis by Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who’s now a deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s civil rights division, found 31 instances of possible voter impersonation out of 1 billion ballots cast over 14 years. “One is more likely to see the tooth fairy standing next to Santa Claus at the voting booth,” says national NAACP president Cornell William Brooks.
The real danger, Brooks argues, is that Texas voters who don’t have ID and are nervous about making a mistake by signing an affidavit—including people whose driver’s licenses have been lost or stolen—may stay home. “You have elected officials on the eve of this election openly expressing a commitment to suppress the vote. You can’t regard it as anything else,” Brooks says. “We have every reason to be very, very concerned.”
The NAACP and other plaintiffs prevailed on a different aspect of implementing the voter-ID law: the language Texas uses in its court-ordered $2.5 million public-education campaign. The state had released materials saying people could still vote if they “cannot obtain” and “have not obtained” IDs, rather than using the more permissive phrase “cannot reasonably obtain” included in the August settlement. So the judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, ordered Texas to change the language on its elections website, posters, and press releases with the updated phrasing. The state attorney general’s office has filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court asking for a new review after the Nov. 8 presidential election.
In August, the DOJ sued Harris County on allegations that polling places used in a May special election violated the Americans With Disabilities Act because they lacked accessible facilities. The county has filed for dismissal. “We don’t think that there’s any voters that cannot get into our polling places,” says Stanart.
He brushes off the legal tussles as routine election-year noise. “There’s always somebody out there complaining about something,” he says. With regard to the voter ID law, he adds: “If someone is lying purposefully, don’t you think that we have laws and we should uphold them?”