Texas Elections Mark Start of State Balloting With ID Laws

Texans will have to prove who they are to cast ballots today, beginning a series of U.S state elections that will show the effect of laws pushed by Republicans requiring photo identification at the polls.

Nine states this year are holding their first major votes - - including for governor and Congress -- under such laws, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for many such requirements last year after throwing out a core element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was meant to enfranchise blacks in the segregated South.

Republicans have said the measures will stop fraud, while Democrats say they are meant to keep minorities and the poor from participating. The effects may be sweeping: In Dallas County alone, the elections department mailed letters in January to warn almost 200,000 people of discrepancies between voter registrations and identification records, said Kathleen Thompson, spokeswoman for the county’s Democratic Party.

“We’re going to be watching it very closely, obviously with an eye to concern about just how much it reduces Latino turnout at the elections or even results in Latinos being turned away from the polls,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, an Washington-based group that opposes the laws.

Court Challenges

Nineteen states have enacted some form of identification law, according to the NCSL. Besides Texas, other states where laws are taking effect for major elections this year are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Virginia, the group said.

Measures in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are on hold because of court challenges, and 10 other states are debating new or more stringent requirements, the conference said.

The Texas Legislature passed its law in 2011. It was null until the Supreme Court threw out a requirement in the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Justice Department approve election rules in Texas and all or part of 14 other states, most Southern.

In Texas today, polls show that few races are close. Attorney General Greg Abbott leads the Republican race for the governor nomination. On the Democratic side, the candidates include state Senator Wendy Davis, who gained fame for a filibuster last year in an attempt to kill an law restricting abortions. Other candidates in the Republican primary include U.S. Senator John Cornyn, who is seeking re-election. Surveys show he leads Tea Party favorite Steve Stockman, a U.S. representative.

Acceptable Identification

To make their choices, voters in the Lone Star State must show one of seven forms of photo identification, including a driver’s license, election identification certificate, personal identification card or concealed handgun license, as well as a passport and military card from the federal government, according to the Texas Secretary of State.

The law was used for the first time in November when there were proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot statewide.

Supporters of the measures have said that before their passage, unregistered people could give false names to cast ballots. Abbott says on his campaign website that voter fraud is real and that laws are needed to “prevent cheating at the ballot box.”

Opponents said there’s little evidence of such behavior.

“The premise of the law is somewhat suspect,” voter Don Campbell, 75, said in an interview today after voting at the Dallas County Courthouse. “It’s designed to solve a nonexistent problem.”

Second Chances

Campbell, who carries an ID and said the requirement isn’t a burden for him, called the requirement “a new type of poll tax.” It may affect minorities and the elderly, he said.

Under Texas law, voters whose personal information doesn’t match exactly can initial a form to get a regular ballot. Those without an ID can vote using a provisional ballot, which gives them six days to verify their identity and have the ballot counted, said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.

There were no immediate reports from polling places today of problems linked to the ID requirement, Pierce said.

Between 8 percent and 12 percent of eligible U.S. citizens lack required identification, and while many states offer free cards for voting, it is difficult for some residents to travel to get them, said Myrna Perez, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York who represents groups challenging the Texas law.

Increased Turnout

Results from the November election in Texas showed that turnout increased to about 9 percent of registered voters from about 5 percent in a similar election two years earlier. Participation increased in counties with larger percentages of minorities, according to a Feb. 11 issue paper by Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington research group that promotes conservative policies.

“This delegitimizes claims that voter ID laws are likely to negatively affect poor and minority voters,” he wrote.

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