Race, Politics, and the Texas Voter ID Law
By Ashley Cruseturner
Acting under the authority of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Justice Department on Monday moved to block a recently enacted Texas law requiring state-issued ID as a qualification for voting. Under the Civil Rights Era legislation (reauthorized in 2006), the Department of Justice (DOJ) oversees voting in select (mostly Southern) states and reserves the right to void changes in existing voting law. In accordance with the statute, Texas will now have an opportunity to appeal before a panel of federal judges to prove that the newly enacted state law does not discriminate against minority voters.
What is this all about?
For supporters of the Texas law, the new measure is merely due diligence. "Texas has a responsibility to ensure [fair] elections,” Governor Rick Perry said in a brief statement released in response to the DOJ action. Perry argued that the law “requires nothing more extensive than the type of photo identification necessary to receive a library card or board an airplane.”
For opponents of the Texas law (and similar laws across the nation), the Texas case is incidence of voter suppression. As United States Attorney General Eric Holder has argued in defense of federal oversight, “In jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common.” As for the Texas case, DOJ asserts that Hispanic voters (and perhaps other protected minorities) are likely to be adversely impacted by this law.
In a nutshell, “Photo identification requirements for voters drastically [hinder] the electoral participation of the poor, the elderly, and the transient,” argues the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. The very constituency most in need of government is the most isolated under this new regime. Moreover, opponents argue, the right to vote in America is our most sacred political institution, one that has been long in coming for many and achieved only with great sacrifice. For a whole host of Americans, the ability to vote without molestation seems emblematic of hard-won Civil Rights victories.
On the other hand, proponents counter, state-issued ID requirements are ubiquitous in almost all sectors of public life: buying Sudafed at the pharmacy requires ID; paying by credit card at the mall requires ID; visiting the White House or the United States Capitol requires ID. Is an ID requirement in this day and age really so onerous? Moreover, a slight inconvenience seems a small price to pay to thwart voting fraud?
But, therein lies the awkward factual incongruity that mitigates the logic: no one can offer any evidence of voter fraud. Objective observers agree that the system offers great potential for impropriety. But, after more than a decade in which Democrats have challenged Republicans to produce evidence of meaningful voting irregularities, they have not. It is a reasonable finding of fact, in the absence of compelling evidence, to conclude that the potential for abuse remains, for whatever reason, unrealized.
What is this argument really all about?
In the end, this debate is not really about civil rights or foiling voting fraud. Ultimately, this is mostly politics. The Democratic Party is skilled at “voting” these citizens on the margins (who are mostly legitimate voters in the sense that they are who they say they are). Republicans would like to make it harder for the Democratic machine to operate. Of course, there is some common sense to all this (who can really oppose state-issued ID on principle), and there is some political philosophy (the parameters and responsibilities of democracy), but, boiled down to the essential elements, this confrontation is little more than partisan electioneering?
One sad aside: although the issue is clearly partisan there is another messy problem associated with this campaign. Under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, the only way the DOJ can thwart these state laws is to charge racial discrimination. So, adding insult to injury, we must be subjected to this partisan squabble under the banner of residual racism. Shame.
Who should win this?
In the grand scheme of things, it is very hard to argue that the state of Texas should not have the right to require voters to identify themselves. As an issue of federalism and constitutional law, it is hard to see the DOJ winning in the long run.
However, consider one last cautionary note: having the right to make policy does not always equate to good policy. Are these precautionary measures truly prudent and practical? Do we really want to empower an army of volunteer poll watchers scrutinizing our IDs on Election Day, verifying addresses, or pursuing spelling discrepancies? Do we really want close inspection aimed at our elderly relatives? Have we carefully considered the benefits against the costs of trying to fix something that is not really broke?
Ashley Cruseturner teaches American history at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.