Harris County – Transcript

February 23, 2016
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Voting is a right and it’s some states it’s pretty easy to do. You register, and then you go to the polling place and mark your ballot. But in more than half the states, laws have been passed called voter ID laws, that require you to not only register but bring specific forms of ID with you when you go to vote.

There’s concerns these voter ID laws discourage some people from going to the polls and voting — particularly poor and minority voters. The federal courts are reviewing a voter ID law passed in North Carolina, and in North Dakota, Native American leaders have filed a lawsuit claiming that Voter ID laws in that state disproportionately impact their community. And in Kansas the ACLU is challenging a requirement that residents show proof of citizenship when they try to register to vote.

And then there’s Texas and it’s voter ID law. By 2050 the population in the state is expected to double with the Latino population challenging majority status. How are all of these voter ID laws  impacting  who votes today in the US, and who will have access to the polls in the future.

Albert Maldonado studies civic engineering at Rice University in Houston. He’s 20-years-old, slender and well-dressed. He wears his hair parted to one side and has a wide smile.

Maldonado is Treasurer of a student leadership group, and an active member of the university community. Yet he says when it comes to voting in elections, many people–including himself–aren’t that well-educated.

MALDONADO

People that are in my position don’t know how to do it. I didn’t know; I registered to vote when I got my driver’s license and they send it to you when you turn 18.

Then, when he got his voter registration card a few weeks later, Maldonado says he didn’t know what to do with it.

MALDONADO

And they sent it to me in the mail, I didn’t know what it was, and I threw it away.

Maldonado’s family is from the city of Monterrey, in Mexico. When he was a child, they moved to the small town in Texas where he grew up. It’s called Honey Grove. The town’s 1600 residents call it the “sweetest town in Texas.” Most of those residents are white.

MALDONADO

It’s very much, like traditional. When I think of Texas it’s what is traditionally portrayed as Texas.

But not all of Texas is like Honey Grove. In Houston, where Maldonado now lives and goes to school, ethnic and racial minorities make up the majority of the population. But not only are Maldonado and his peers uninformed about voting–some scholars and politicians in the state are concerned that new Voter ID laws will make it harder for minorities like Maldonado to vote at all.

Leland Beatty lives in Austin, and makes his living working with statistics–he was an expert witness in a case brought against a voter ID law implemented in Wisconsin.

Beatty has a shock of white hair and when we meet, he’s smoking a cigarette, a few blocks from the state capitol in Austin. He says voting in Texas has been in trouble for a while.

BEATTY

Lowest voter participation in the nation. Lowest voter registration in the nation. We dug a deep deep hole in Texas. And what we’ve gotta do is stop digging.

Beatty says not only do the people of Texas have to get out of the hole, the new Voter ID law is making it harder for the state’s minorities to vote.

BEATTY

It’s unquestionable that this impacts minorities twice as heavily more than twice as heavily as non-minorities…

The law that requires voter IDs is often called SB-14, or Senate Bill 14. It became law in 2011. And the way this law works, in addition to registering to vote, voters must bring one of seven forms of photo identification with them when they go to the polls.

The accepted forms of ID are: a Texas State Driver’s License, an Election ID Card, a state issued ID card, a military ID, a citizenship certificate containing a photo, or a passport. Or, a license to carry a handgun.

Now at first, maybe requiring an ID doesn’t sound so strange. We use IDs for a lot of things, right? But in more than a dozen states you still don’t have to show an ID to vote. It’s been that way for decades. And that’s no accident.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

LBJ

This is a victory for the freedom for the American Negro, but it is also a victory for the freedom of our nation. And every family across this great entire searching land will live stronger in liberty will live more splendid in expectation because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.

The act created provisions to protect equal access for voters regardless of their ethnicity. And one of those key provisions, Section 5, declared that any time state or local government wanted to make changes to voter access at the polls, that change had to be cleared by the Department of Justice to ensure that it didn’t discriminate against any particular group.

Thirty-three US states have since moved to adopt some kind of voter ID law. But four of the laws didn’t get clearance from the DOJ–because it concluded that in those cases, the ID law would unjustly impact certain groups.

Texas’ Voter ID law was one of them.

Beatty says that not only are laws like these unnecessary, they make it harder for poor and minority members of the community to vote. The Texas law may have been introduced as a way to stop voter fraud, he says,  but fraud isn’t the issue.

BEATTY
This is one of those things that seems a simple solution but like most simplistic solutions the damage it does way outweighs the benefits. We haven’t had rampant voter fraud in Texas in a number of years. And when we did, it did not have to do with voters showing up to vote with fake ID’s.

Earlier this year, the University of California San Diego, released a report on voter ID laws and voter turnout. The study followed sixteen elections from 2008 to 2012. In states where voter ID laws had been implemented, the study found there was a 10.3 percent drop in turnout among Latino voters.

Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives Jim Murphy says that voter ID legislation like Texas’ SB-14 bill is simply a safeguard against fraud.

JIM MURPHY
Here’s the thing, it really doesn’t matter if there are stories of this or that or the other. We weren’t trying to go back in time. We were saying, shouldn’t the election process have all the integrity that we would envision? You know, everybody voting, but everybody voting once, everybody voting legally, and that’s really what that the bill’s about.

Representative Murphy says the law requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls will restore people’s faith in the fairness of elections.

MURPHY
People need to have faith that their electoral systems are fair. That they are uh…everybody’s allowed to participate in them. And that one vote counts just as much as the next.

But when SB-14 was originally passed in Texas, in 2011, it didn’t go over well with the Federal government.

HENRY FLORES

It was devastating to the state of Texas.

Professor Henry Flores is the Distinguished University Research Professor in the Dept of Political Science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio

FLORES

At the time that SB14 was finally passed, Texas was still under coverage of the VRA. And so under Section 5 of the VRA we had to submit any kind of changes to either the Dept of Justice or have it reviewed by a three ­judge panel of the DC circuit in Washington. In the end the three judge panel sent SB14 back to the state saying you can’t implement it, because it doesn’t pass muster.

And so, in 2012, the Texas State Law that would require photo ID’s was stopped by a Federal Court in Washington DC. Professor Flores:

FLORES
The way the law would be implemented, the types of identification that were required by the state of Texas, would prohibit a large percentage of Latinos and African Americans from participating in elections. It was dilutive–in other words it would weaken our election strength and kind of set us back from a participation  point of view.

But a year later,  the US Supreme Court overturned several key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In a case known as Shelby County Vs. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5–the provision mandating a federal “pre-clearance” of changes to state voting laws–was unconstitutional. Which meant that Texas no longer needed the Department of Justice’s approval to implement the voter ID law.

The Texas Attorney General immediately ordered that SB-14 be reinstated.

Since that time, SB-14–otherwise known as Texas’ Voter ID law–has been volleyed back and forth between state and federal courts. In 2014, a suit was filed against SB14, and won in US District Court. A year later, in 2015–on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act–the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the Texas voter ID law to stand, while also acknowledging its potential to disproportionately impact minorities.

Professor Henry Flores of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio says now that the state voter ID law is law, there’s no disguising its intent.

FLORES
And if you look at it from a preponderance of evidence test, you can strip every other excuse out and discover that, Oh, Senate Bill 14 wasn’t created to prevent voter fraud, it wasn’t created to secure the ballot… So the only thing left over for it to do is to prevent minorities from voting.

Fred Lewis is a lawyer.  He grew up in Houston, at the heart of Harris County, Texas. He worked in the Attorney General’s office before founding the nonprofit community outreach group Texans Together. Lewis says he’s seen Harris County change over the past two decades. That it’s gone from what he calls, a “sleepy mostly Anglo town” …to one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country. Lewis says the debate over the voter ID law in Harris County is a preview of the future of voting rights for all Americans.

FRED LEWIS
Demographers say that Harris County is 10 years ahead of the rest of Texas. And Texas is ten years ahead of the country. So basically America is changing.

Now that Texas, and the US in General are becoming more diverse, Lewis says it’s important to uphold the system of checks and balances the original Voting Rights Act was meant to protect.

FRED LEWIS
It’s very interesting that from 1994 to 2008 we really didn’t have poll watchers much in Harris County. [[In African American communities.]] Why? Nobody intimidates anybody when you’re gonna win. So we didn’t really have a lot of poll watching and voter intimidation and voter registration this… that began to change in earnest when Barack Obama carried Harris County.

Whatever form of official ID you choose, Henry Flores says that getting one of the approved IDs is disproportionately harder for minorities, and people who are poor. For a bunch of reasons.

If you’re an immigrant or from a rural place, Flores says, your birth certificate might not be readily available. It may be in an area where there are few if any computers, and getting access to the document could mean travel which means time and money. Or that paperwork may not even exist.

Take birth certificates for example, which are generally required if you want to apply for a state ID.

FLORES

Some of them don’t have birth certificates, or don’t have access to official birth certificates, because of the way they were born in this country. It was a lot of midwife births, not sure what the technical term for that is but um…For that generation and even for some in my generation, those folks either don’t have, were never issued a birth certificates or didn’t know how to go about getting one.

Flores also says that even with a birth certificate in hand, negotiating the bureaucratic process of getting the photo ID can still be difficult.

Albert Maldonado, the civil engineering student at Rice University, says that being part of the immigrant community means some people already shy away from voting and politics in general.

MALDONADO
And so I was never taught what registering to vote was actually like; I was never taught how to use your register card or what it looks like or anything like that because nobody in my family can vote.

Many people, he says, also fear exposing undocumented family members by sharing their political opinions–or giving out information like their home address.

Myrna Garza is one of Maldonado’s classmates at Rice. She grew up in South Texas near Brownsville. Garza is politically active: in Harris County, she’s participated in voter registration drives and organized student visits to City Hall.

MYRNA GARZA

They a lot of the time don’t see a lot of the issues. The moment that you’re able to bring those issues to them and explain to them, so a lot of time just like – not like dumbing it down, but explaining how it affects your life.

Before moving to Houston for college, Garza registered to vote in the county where she grew up. Then, during the mayor’s race in 2015, she wanted to vote in Houston, where she now lives.

GARZA

So like I have an ID, but all of them are from back home. Both my passport and the two that I have, but um, what i was told was that you needed to have a um, you needed to have  your address needed to be the one where you lived. And I lived in Rice, at the dorm.

Garza showed me her student ID. It says she lives in Houston. But because Texas doesn’t consider a student ID card a valid form of ID at the polls, she says she was unable to get a valid form of ID that would allow her to vote in Houston.

For people with name changes or moving to Texas from out of state, getting a valid voter ID can be even more complicated.

Lindsay Gonzales grew up in Houston, then moved away to Washington D.C. She and her husband returned to Houston in 2012.

LINDSAY GONZALES

So we moved back to Texas after living in a lot of places and started doing all the things registering our cars to re-establish residency and I found out there was a big long list of things I needed to do in order to get for my Texas license.

Gonzales had lost her social security card. Without it, getting an in-state ID in time for the midterm election turned out to be nearly impossible.

GONZALES

I was sort of stuck with this very real life implication to say well I needed to go to several different offices and none of them were streamlined and none of them were talking to each other and ended up needing to get about four different documents before I could get a license.

I was trying to get all of that so I could vote. I was able to register but without a Texas license I would no longer be able to vote. Prior to that law I would’ve been able to with my valid out of state license.

And then there’s the actual act of just going to apply for the ID. In a press conference after signing the bill into law, Governor Rick Perry said that it’s “no more complicated than cashing a check at the HEB”–a major supermarket chain in Texas.

And since 2011, Texas has actually issued free election ID cards through the Department of Public Safety.

I want to see the process firsthand, so I head over to the Houston DPS. It’s a brick building about the size of a single-family home, set among other government buildings right on the big loop of freeway that circles the city.

At first, when I talk to sixty-one-year-old Flory Johnson outside the front door, he says that requiring a Voter ID does not make the process of voting more difficult. He waits for his voter registration card to come in the mail, and then brings it and his driver’s license with him when he goes to the polls.

FLORY JOHNSON

I’ve had mine so long, I don’t even know what the new program is, as far as getting their cards because I’ve always used my driver’s license… But I’ve never used the card. I’ve never had a problem going anywhere to vote.


But because of the way Houston is set up, even if there weren’t any of these other issues people mention–family circumstances, lack of education, trouble getting birth certificates. etc.–it would still be hard for many people in Houston to get a Driver’s License or another form of Voter ID.

Because Houston is a driving city. There are 4.4 million people in Harris County and 575 square miles of freeways. Flory Johnson has a car. But without one, it can be really hard to get to the DPS.

Here’s Albert Maldonado, the student whose parents are undocumented.

MALDONADO

In Texas Hispanics tend to drive less than other ethnic groups so they don’t get DL’s as often… DL is like the main form of ID a lot of people use in TX.

And the Department of Public Safety office I went to is the only DPS office for the entire inner city of Houston–half a million people. Plus those who live outside the loop and use this location.

Even if you don’t want to get a Driver’s License, and just want a basic ID, if you don’t have a car and you don’t drive, just getting to and from the DPS could be a day-long undertaking.

Even Flory, who first tells me it’s easy to get an ID, is startled to imagine what it would be like to go to the DPS if he didn’t have a car.

JOHNSON

Oh mercy. It would be about 2 hours, two and a half, maybe three. Probably three. That’s three buses probably.

Maybe it’s culture that makes voter ID laws problematic for some poor and minority Texas residents. Or access. Or bureaucracy. Or the Harris County Transportation system. But what does seem clear is that the law is making it harder for some people to vote.

Leland Beatty, the statistical consultant, says this matters. Think of voting like buying shoes.

BEATTY

When my feet hurt, I’m go buy me some shoes. I’m not likely to go and think about it until my feet start hurting. Voting’s the same way. The fact that people aren’t regular participants, is no excuse to exclude them from the process entirely. If I go a year without buying shoes, no shoe store is gonna be like “Sorry! Your shoe license is expired. You can’t have shoes.”

And right now, the impact of SB-14 has yet to be tested in a presidential election, when people often feel like the most is at stake. But that’s all about to change.

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