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State Law That Limited Interpreters at Polls Struck Down

As I’ve noted before, the Texas Election Code is a mess.

Our state election laws are a cruel jumble, much of it born of mean-spirited political expediency, sloth, torpor, and ignorance.

One particular piece of work within this ramshackle edifice of voter suppression and general discouragement of the democratic process is Section 61.033 of the Election Code, which states that in order to serve as an interpreter for a voter who requires language assistance, “a person must be a registered voter of the county in which the voter needing the interpreter resides.”

The law, such as it is, has a long pedigree stretching back to 1918, (Act of March 23, 1918, 35th Leg., 4th C.S. Ch. 30 (H.B. 104), although a requirement that election officials could only communicate via English in the polling place was added by the Act of March 13, 1919, 36th Leg. Ch. 55 (S.B. 244), 1919 Tex. Gen. Laws p. 94), The 1919 law reflected a longstanding nativist fear (pumped up by anti-German sentiment after World War One) that some language other than English might intrude into the polling place; that fear is still reflected in Section 61.031(a) of the Election Code, which more or less tracks the xenophobia of the old 1919 law.

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the state law was softened to permit language assistance at the same time that multilingual ballots were provided.

But … while Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act provides that voters should be able to make use of language assistance of their own choosing, the state law still exhibits a weird reluctance to help voters out by imposing that pesky have-to-be-registered-to-vote-in-the-same-county-as-the-voter requirement on interpreters.

That restriction found in the state law was never defensible (given that it directly contradicts federal law), but it’s interesting that it took so long for a group of plaintiffs to find a test case to knock it down.

But … better late than never. On August 12, a federal district court in the Austin division of the Western District of Texas granted a motion for summary judgment on behalf of a group of plaintiffs against the State of Texas, and enjoined the State against enforcement of Section 61.033 of the Texas Election Code. NBC News covers the story here: “Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Law That Violates Voting Rights Act.” And the text of the August 12, 2016 opinion (OCA Houston v. State of Texas, 1:15 CV-00679, Western District of Texas, Austin Division) is here, linked to scribd.com within the NBC online story.

The facts of the case highlight why it was a bad idea for the State of Texas to specify that interpreters had to be registered voters in the same county as the person that they were helping. A voter with limited English proficiency went into a polling place in Williamson County with her son, intending that her son would help her read the ballot. If the voter’s had been deemed to merely be offering “assistance” (i.e., help in marking the ballot), he wouldn’t have been challenged. But he was “interpreting” (i.e., translating the ballot), and the election workers at the polls determined that he could not do so, because he was registered to vote in Travis County, not Williamson County.

That’s a weird, restricting, artificial reason to thwart voter intent.

The smart move on the State’s part would have been to settle and accept an agreed judgment the instant that the lawsuit hit the transom — there is absolutely no upside to fighting this. We’ll see if common sense prevails.

 

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Waking Up From the Picture I.D. Fever Dream

As has been widely reported, the State of Texas has temporarily rolled back the worst aspects of its draconian picture I.D. voting requirements in the face of the recent 5th Circuit decision. Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune responds to the development with an excellent overview of the pressing need for preclearance and continuing federal oversight of Texas elections generally.