The 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington last week brought thousands of Americans to the nation’s capital to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Attendees, armed with umbrellas and raincoats, marched to the park surrounding Lincoln Memorial, ignoring the clouds and drizzle that threatened to ruin President Barack Obama’s commemorative speech.
But an even darker cloud was hanging over the marchers’ heads, reminding them of a recent stab to the very heart of the civil rights movement: the striking down of the key preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in June.
After the SCOTUS decision authorized states with a history of discrimination to change their election laws without federal approval, several states rushed to pass laws requiring voters to present photo IDs at the polls. The most stringent requirements are perhaps found in Texas’ new law, which had previously been ruled unconstitutional under the Voting Rights Act. The law, passed by the Texas legislature in an emergency vote, was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice two weeks ago in an effort to prevent disenfranchisement of minority voters in that state.
Now, the term “voter ID law” needs not equal discrimination. A case can be made that such laws can help states improve their voter registration databases and thus increase confidence in the electoral process. The real issue arises when states place an unnecessary and significant burden on minorities and citizens in need in order to achieve that goal. That is exactly what Texas is doing.
Registering to vote in Texas is easy, the Texas Secretary of State website states, because it doesn’t even require a stamp. The state will cover the cost of mailing in the voter registration application.
Sadly, that’s all the Lone Star State will do for you. If you do not have the required documentation to apply — namely, a Texas driver’s license number, personal ID issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety or a Social Security number — you will have to incur out-of-pocket costs to obtain an ID.
Sure, Texas DPS identification cards are “free,” but the documents associated with their processing do cost money and might be hard to find. One of the valid supporting documents is a birth certificate, which costs $22 to obtain or $30 for an “expedited” one, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Obtaining a birth certificate is — by a sizeable margin — the cheapest option available.
U.S. citizenship and naturalization papers are also valid. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services N-565 document costs $345.
Finally, a court order indicating change of name or gender, for which $1 per page must be paid in addition to $5 for the record search, is also acceptable. This last price might seem more reasonable than the one for the citizenship and naturalization papers, but the process to change one name’s or gender costs at least $152 in the first place.
The requirements don’t end there. You must present at least two of the previously mentioned documents, or one of those plus two other supporting documents, which include concealed handgun licenses (as of last December, only about 600,000 of the more than 26 million Texans have one of those, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety) and federal inmate identification cards, among others. The quest for more documentation continues.
After gathering all required papers, you have to make it to an ID office that might be far from you, because as Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez noted last year, 81 of Texas’ 254 counties do not have operational driver’s license offices. If your application is approved, you now have a valid voter ID and are able to fill out your voter registration application. You have probably spent more than $30 and may have traveled out of your county, and even though you haven’t cast a ballot yet, Texas’ strict photo ID laws have already impacted your path to the polls.
Voter ID laws that might result in out-of-pocket expenses never mention race or ethnicity, but they were passed at a time when nearly 25 percent of Hispanic residents and 24 percent of black residents in the state, but only 8.4 percent of white residents, are poor (according to the 2007 American Community Survey). It would be far-fetched to simply consider those laws an unfortunate coincidence that just happens to disproportionately affect minority voters.
Texas Governor Rick Perry claimed that the DOJ’s lawsuit against the state is trying to “obstruct the will of the people of Texas.” But in fact, by ensuring that minority voters continue to exercise their right to vote with no arbitrary burdens, the DOJ is doing nothing but protecting that will.
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