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I’m reposting Professor Hasen’s editorial in today’s New York Times (linked through his election law blog) here for three reasons.
First, it’s a clear-eyed and thorough analysis of the present danger.
Second, it nicely coincides with a question my wife asked me this week (which I’ll paraphrase here as “So … what legal mechanisms may be employed to remove bad actors from elective public office?”)¹
And third, it’s a prompt for me to ask all of you for your thoughts.
There is cause for pessimism about voting rights in general (e.g., as the Texas House redistricting trial winds down, and in the face of institutionalized hostility towards the preservation of voting rights). But there is also cause for optimism (as civil rights advocacy groups renew their focus and energy in response to the urgency of this crisis, embedded in what I might dryly refer to as a target-rich environment for litigation).
¹With respect to my wife’s question (which was specifically about removing executive and legislative officers from the federal government), here’s the short answer – per Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, the President may be removed from office following a trial of impeachment in the Senate, based on articles of impeachment passed by the House, or he may be suspended from the duties of office based on the procedures outlined in Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Members of Congress may be expelled from office upon a two-thirds vote by their peers, per the second clause of Article I, Section 5.
As reported on CNN and as analyzed by Rick Hasen’s Election Blog, the U.S. Department of Justice has asked for an extension in trial court briefing deadlines in the Texas voter ID lawsuit due to a change in the federal administration.
The common-sense interpretation of this procedural move (as expressed by Professor Hasen)?:
DOJ will switch sides and join the State of Texas in arguing in favor of more restrictive voting requirements. More to come.
Ari Berman & Others on Texas Voter Registration and Jim Crow: tl;dr: Racism, Recalcitrance, Restrictions
Although Mr. Berman’s recent election stories have been been national in scope (he’s examining violations of voting rights in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio, among other places) his cover story for this week’s issue specifically focuses on the State of Texas’s discriminatory voter I.D. law and our restrictive voter registration laws.
Berman’s coverage in The Nation‘s cover story, “Texas’s Voter-Registration Laws Are Straight Out of the Jim Crow Playbook” spotlights the restrictions on volunteer deputy voter registrars (or “VDRs”).
The story also looks at threats by some Texas officials to investigate voters who lack the narrow range of acceptable forms of photo I.D. required under the State’s 2011 voter I.D. law that was struck down in July of this year as racially discriminatory.
From the cover story in the October 31, 2016, issue of The Nation:
“VDRs [Volunteer Deputy Registrars] were established in 1985, but the restrictions on voter registration were significantly toughened by the Texas legislature in 2011 to require county trainings, ban non-Texans, and prohibit VDRs from being compensated based on the number of people they register. As a result, ‘Texas is the most restrictive state in the union when it comes to voter registration,’according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.”
A bit more on selected links included in this post:
Ari Berman’s Twitter feed is a good source of links not only to Mr. Berman’s own journalism, but also to other materials relating to civil rights and voting rights issues generally: https://twitter.com/AriBerman
My source for the text of provisions from Chapters 63 and 13 of the Texas Election Code (relating to voter I.D. and volunteer deputy voter registrar laws respectively) is the Texas Legislature Online: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us funded by us, the people of the great state of Texas.
Texas Voter ID Troubles Continue; District Court Orders Judicial Oversight of Texas Voter Education – And the State Doubles Down By Disparaging the Motives Of Voters Who Claim Not To Have Photo I.D.
I. APPARENTLY, THE STATE CAN SCRUTINIZE VOTERS WHO SUBMIT DECLARATIONS OF REASONABLE IMPEDIMENT IN LIEU OF PHOTO ID
On September 22, 2016, the Texas House of Representatives Elections Committee conducted a routine interim hearing on various technical matters relating to election administration. For three and a half hours the committee members and witnesses discussed proposed legislative tweaks to the petition signature process, to municipal elections, to obligation bonds and taxes, and so on. You can watch the whole hearing if that’s your thing, but for my money the really interesting stuff doesn’t come up until the very end of the hearing.
As the hearing wrapped up, State Representative Celia Israel asked an official from the Texas Secretary of State’s office about a court order that had been issued two days prior to the committee hearing. In particular, Representative Israel was curious to find out what the State was doing to educate voters about I.D. requirements for the November 8, 2016, election.
In response to the questions, Director of Elections Keith Ingram explained that the State had incorporated the text of the court’s most recent directive into the website and upcoming print and media advertising; he specified that voters who “do not possess [the statutorily mandated forms of photo I.D.] and cannot reasonably obtain it,” could cast a regular ballot by completing a “Declaration of Reasonable Impediment,” if they also supplied alternate forms of documentary evidence of their identity.
Representative Mike Schofield then took the discussion in a new direction (starting at the 3 hour, 36 minute mark), after asking if the State could track information about whether the Declarations were submitted by people who actually have I.D.:
What I don’t want to see is a gross number, and everybody acts as if those people don’t have I.D…. If you pretend you don’t have it, and use one of these declarations, that’s illegal, isn’t it?
In response to the question, Mr. Ingram clarified that voters entitled to use the Declaration would be those who had either never been issued one of the six forms of photo I.D. listed under the law, or those whose previously issued I.D.s had been lost or destroyed, and who had a reasonable impediment to replacing the missing I.D.
Representative Israel raised a hypothetical situation (described starting at 3 hours 45 minutes) in which a voter’s “reasonable impediment” is that the voter is voting at a polling place on one end of town, but left her photo I.D. at home, at the other end of town.
In that circumstance, Mr. Ingram explained that assuming that the voter filled out the “Declaration” and wrote down that the reasonable impediment was “left my I.D. at home,” the election worker would have to take the declaration at face value and allow the voter to cast a ballot.
Representative Schofield seemed incredulous, asking, “Is that … is that correct? … You’re going to let them vote with a ‘Reasonable Impediment?'”
The Director of Elections responded:
The poll worker cannot challenge the ‘Reasonable Impediment’ asserted by the voter. …. But if that’s the reasonable impediment, I think the voter is at risk, because they’re not following the law. But that’s not for the poll worker to decide. [Emphasis added by me.]
Committee vice-chair Craig Goldman then asked, “But, how does that get challenged, and then how is their vote null and void?”
The Director of Elections explained:
The vote will never be null and void. It’ll get challenged in an election contest, if it’s a close election. And obviously these things [the Declarations of Reasonable Impediment] will be available for folks to give to their district attorneys to follow up on. [Emphasis added by me.]
Representative Schofield pressed the issue as the hearing entered its final minutes (at the 3 hour 46 minute mark):
I realize we’re going to have a lot of illegal votes and a lot of fraudulent votes. That’s why we have voter I.D. My concern is that there are going to be a lot of people trying to thwart the [voter I.D.] law who have valid drivers’ licenses; who have passports; and are going to assert these declarations. Their votes may count in this election, but I want to make sure that when we go back to court, we’re not saying ‘oh, there’s this huge number of people that filed these declarations.’ I want to drill down and find out which one of ’em [declarations] were bogus. [Emphasis added by me.]
The Director of Elections responded, “And I’ll think you’ll be able to tell easily.” He then went on describe how one of the Declarations of Reasonable Impediment that had already been used in an off-season tax ratification election indicated that one voter had written that the “reasonable impediment” was “fascist law.”
The committee chair said: “Fascist law? They wrote that?”
What’s troubling about the exchange (aside from Representative Schofield’s counterfactual and inflammatory assertion that there’s going to be a lot of “fraudulent votes” in this election), and what should be especially troubling to the plaintiffs in the voter I.D. lawsuit, is the implication—encouraged both by Representative Schofield’s assertion that “we’re going to have a lot of illegal votes,” and by the response from the Director of Elections that voters who use the Declaration can be tracked, and possibly referred to local district attorneys for prosecution for illegal voting—that voting without an approved photo I.D. is automatically suspect.
So … why is this suggestion of potential criminal prosecution troubling?
Because it is not a stretch to imagine that statements like this could have a chilling effect — dissuading eligible, qualified voters without approved photo I.D. from voting. In other words, threatening to investigate voters who file a ￼Reasonable Impediment Declaration could end up hurting the very group of voters that the August 10, 2016, court order was intended to help.
Think I’m exaggerating about “threatening to investigate”?
On September 9, 2016, Rick Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, posted a story on his Election Law Blog about the motion for enforcement of the August 10 court order filed by the private (non-Department of Justice) plaintiffs in Veasey v. Perry. These plaintiffs were reacting to this August 26, 2016, news story (as quoted in the private plaintiff’s motion):
[Harris County Clerk Stan] Stanart says he will investigate everyone who signs that form to assure they are not lying. Whether anything happens, that’s up to the [Harris County District Attorney’s Office]. But after the votes are counted and the election ends, Stanart said his office will be checking to see whether a person who signed the sworn statement has a Texas Department of Public Safety-issued ID through the DPS database.” Meagan Flynn, Harris County Clerk Will Vet Voters Who Claim to Lack Photo ID, HOUSTON PRESS, Aug. 26, 2016.
So to recap: As of late August in a presidential election year, the chief election official in Harris County, the most heavily populated county in Texas, was quoted as intending to investigate voters who claim they lack photo I.D.s.
That threat of punitive or retributive investigation prompted the federal district court in Corpus Christi to issue on September 20 a legal order, in which the court told the State to clarify and make explicit that voters who reasonably lacked photo I.D. were legally entitled to an alternate method of qualifying for a regular ballot.
But then in the hearing on September 22, just two days after the court order, the State was still discussing the option of criminal investigations and prosecutions of voters without photo I.D.s, in order to satisfy a Republican state legislator’s concerns about the effective enforcement of the State’s photo I.D. law.
And the statements of the Director of Elections reassuring Representative Schofield that voters who vote without photo I.D. can be tracked and investigated echoed the statements made in August by Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart.
II. BACKGROUND — WHAT’S ALL THIS ABOUT “REASONABLE IMPEDIMENT”?
After the conservative Fifth Circuit appellate bench ruled that the State of Texas had enacted a discriminatory voter I.D. law, the federal district court in Corpus Christi that has been handling the photo I.D. suit (Veasey v. Perry) issued a judicial order on August 10, 2016, to remedy the immediate effects of the discriminatory law.
The plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit relating to voter I.D. then filed a motion informing the district court judge that the state’s officials were misrepresenting the court’s directive. (see, e.g., the Texas Tribune‘s September 7, 2016, story).
The August 10 judicial order had provided that voters who could not “reasonably” obtain an acceptable form of photo I.D. could substitute the use of some other forms of identification if they completed a “declaration of reasonable impediment.” The Elections Division at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office did not include the word “reasonably” in training materials, the agency’s website, and voter information posters, leaving the impression that the only voters who could access alternative forms of identification were those who were absolutely unable to get the photo I.D.
Omitting the word “reasonably,” which had been specifically included in the district court’s August 10 judicial directive, may seem like a minor editorial alteration. But in making that omission, the State gave the plaintiffs the impression that State officials were dragging their feet in response to the August 10 court order.
The Department of Justice summarized the problem in its September 6, 2016, motion to enforce the August 10, 2016, remedial order as follows:
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.
Ari Berman analyzes the effects of the Fifth Circuit’s March 9, 2016 order. This is bad news for the plaintiffs, and for Texas voters generally. The foot-dragging has been especially galling, given the airtight factual evidence in support of the plaintiffs’ arguments.
(Note to the non-attorneys out there: the linked article explains this, but not everyone knows what “en banc review” means. After five months of delay, the court has collectively decided that the previous decisions regarding the State’s unconstitutional voter I.D. law need to be reconsidered by the entire panel of all the Fifth Circuit appellate judges, the majority of whom happen to be conservative political appointees).
As an additional follow-up; the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has rebuffed arguments for stopping implementation of the unconstitutional law until after the whole body of judges hear additional oral argument later this year. The law will likely continue to be enforced through the November 2016 presidential election, despite the fact that it has been found to be unconstitutional.
This isn’t breaking news — the redistricting panel’s order came out November 6, and the Texas Tribune and various editorialists have already weighed in on the implications. (See also this coverage from Texas Lawyer).
In particular, Jody Seaborn’s editorial in the Austin-American Statesman expresses everything I feel about the decision, only better. Jody also points out how the delays in the 2012 primary schedule ultimately produced Ted Cruz’s primary runoff victory over the more moderate David Dewhurst. (Disclosure: Jody and I are old friends.)
The federal judicial redistricting panel charged with reviewing the State’s 2011 redistricting plan (yes, that’s not a typo. 2011), has responded somewhat petulantly regarding an effort by a subgroup of the plaintiffs in the Perez v. Perry redistricting litigation who joined together in a motion to enjoin the State from using gerrymandered district boundary lines for the 2016 U.S. House of Representatives elections.
For a good overview and analysis of the origin, development and philosophy of this gerrymandering (cleverly described as a “Perrymander” by various wags), see this excellent article by Rosemarie Unite, The Perrymander, Polarization, and Peyote v. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 46 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 1075 (2013) (pdf). Also available in on the web at http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/llr/vol46/iss3/7).
The subgroup of the plaintiffs that petitioned—including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC ), the NAACP, the City of Austin, Travis County, Eddie Rodriguez Jr., Shannon Perez, the Quesada plaintiffs, et al., but excluding the Latino Redistricting Task Force, the United States Department of Justice, and the various congressional officeholder plaintiffs—had hoped to light a fire under the panel by asking for an injunction against the use of the redistricting plan that had been used in the November 2014 election (presumably hoping that the panel would either completely redraw the district maps, or at the very least prohibit the use of the bad maps).
Instead, the redistricting panel announced that the bad maps would most assuredly be used for the 2016 elections, stating that new maps at this late date would be unduly disruptive and confusing to voters and office seekers.
So sorry, petitioners.
See this statement from page five of the redistricting panel’s denial of a request for injunctive relief:
The Court has been working diligently and has made substantial progress toward resolution of the claims on the 2011 plans; however, it has not yet reached a final decision. Trial on the merits of the claims against the 2013 plans has not been scheduled, and legal challenges to the 2013 plans will not be resolved before the 2016 election cycle.
This unanimous denial could have been subtitled, “Redistricting Panels Have Feelings Too, You Know.”
The panel explicitly countered criticism that the judges have been dragging their feet on a resolution.
One can’t help but feel that there’s a little bit of passive-aggressive retribution in the decision. As in, “Oh! You think we haven’t been working fast enough to resolve your redistricting problems? Well how about this? How about we just declare that we won’t bother fixing any of this until the 2018 elections? Yeah! That’ll teach you to pressure us about coming up with some sort of consensus regarding your maps.”
This denial is frustrating on many levels. The State of Texas made no real effort to argue that its 2011 and 2013 maps weren’t discriminatory toward minority voters.The State’s argument, grounded and based solidly on a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases relating to so-called “partisan gerrymandering,” beginning with Davis v. Bandamer, 478 U.S. 109 (1986), Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267 (2004), and League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006) is, more or less, we don’t discriminate against Hispanics and African Americans because of race, but because we, the line-drawing Republican Party majority, want to crush the Democratic Party, and therefore any seemingly discriminatory line-drawing was not intentional.
You can see this argument reflected throughout the State’s proposed finding of fact and conclusions of law, as well as the State’s pre- and post-trial briefs. For example, on page 56 of the State’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, finding of fact number 518 states that the chairman of the Texas House Redistricting Committee felt he could not pass a redistricting plan unless he guaranteed that three of the four new U.S. House of Representatives seats for Texas would go to Republicans. Later, on pages 100-101 of the same proposed finding of fact and conclusions of law (starting around proposed conclusion 45) the State argues for findings of fact that the Texas redistricting plan was motivated by political, rather than racial, discrimination, and was therefore not part of an invidious intentionally racially discriminatory scheme.
And the redistricting panel (which for those of you who are new to the story, consists of the three-judge panel convened in May of 2011 out of the membership of the San Antonio division of the Federal District Court for the Western District of Texas, as explained in this handy blog post from the wonderful (and greatly missed) Texas Redistricting and Election Law blog) has made as explicit as it possibly can that the most glaring of demographic problems with the State’s Congressional and State legislative district maps are not going to be fixed in time for the 2016 elections. That fact leaves just two federal election cycles (2018 and 2020) before the next redistricting maps get drawn.
Particularly for Hispanic voters in Texas, 2011–2021 is shaping up to be the lost decade for both U.S. House of Representatives representation, as well as for representation in the Texas Legislature, notwithstanding the fact that the population gains experienced by the State were overwhelmingly the result of increases in the population of protected classes of linguistic and racial minorities.
Today I got a call from a Houston-area radio journalist asking questions about how Texas makes it harder for homeless people to vote. On the one hand, the timing of the question was a little late (what with the registration deadline already having passed for the statewide and local November 3, 2015 elections here in Texas). On the other hand, the question was timely, given that a five-month lead-in to the early February deadline to register to vote for the March 2016 primary elections probably gives homeless voters the time they need to organize their identification paperwork and fight their legal and bureaucratic battles so that they’ll be able to cast a ballot next year.
If ever there was a class of voters that was easy to disenfranchise, it would have to be the homeless – even before we had voter I.D. laws, only an estimated 10% of the eligible voting-age homeless population participated in elections. (This statistic is widely cited, and consistent with statements made by Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. See, e.g., http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/forgotten-voters-dc-volunteers-work-to-register-the-homeless/.)
Why are the turnout numbers so small for the homeless? Let me turn that question around. Why wouldn’t we expect the number of homeless people successfully engaging in the political process to be a tiny minority of the homeless population? After all, our government has raised enormous barriers to discourage homeless participation in politics, with ballot limitation policies that often appear to be motivated more by petty cruelty or simple mean-spiritedness than by any legitimate administrative concerns; is it any wonder that homeless have gotten the message that they are not wanted at the polls?
That’s not to say that there aren’t organizations making an effort to counter this powerfully negative message of exclusion – there are regional groups like Homeless Not Powerless (which was active in early 2014 and centered around urban centers in Alabama and North Carolina), as well as national groups like the aforementioned National Coalition for the Homeless (who produced a .pdf brochure in 2012 urging the homeless to register to vote and go to the polls).
I would hope that homeless advocates would similarly work to encourage voting by the homeless in 2016, but nobody doubts that the Texas photo i.d. law makes that a lot harder.
DOESN’T EVERYBODY HAVE A DRIVER’S LICENSE ALREADY?
Uh … no. Could anybody still say this sort of thing with a straight face? Well, yes – at last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival here in Austin, State Representative Jason Villalba (R) (Dallas) said that a photo I.D. requirement was “no big,” because everybody already has a license to do things like rent cars and book airline tickets.
Ah, the power of anecdotal experience. Ah, the failure of imagination. Since a Texas lawmaker has a driver’s license, everybody must have one. You know, except for the 600,000 eligible already-registered voters who lack such a thing.
Seriously, does Representative Villalba think that the whole development of evidence and discovery phase of a contested civil rights trial just takes place in an ’80s movie montage? Has it somehow escaped the understanding of our state lawmakers that when lawyers clash in a courtroom setting, spending huge sums of money on depositions, expert witnesses, and intensive documentary analysis and research, that the resulting mountains of evidence are somehow just … irrelevant to their own fantasies about how the other half lives? It isn’t some made-up statistic – the Texas Secretary of State’s own records confirm that around 600,000 registered voters lack sufficient i.d. to vote. A much larger number of non-registered voting-age citizens also lack the documentation required to cast a ballot.
OKAY, SO NOT EVERYONE HAS A DRIVER’S LICENSE. BUT … I MEAN, COULDN’T THEY ALL GET DRIVERS’ LICENSES?
With unlimited resources, time and money, problems like a lack of supporting documentation magically vanish for eligible voting-age Texans. Except … people don’t have unlimited resources, time and money. That’s sort-of the problem, isn’t it?
To be fair, the State of Texas makes it possible for people without drivers’ licenses to get specialized picture I.D.s to be used for the narrow purpose of voting. And these I.D.s are at least legally issued free of charge to anyone who can cough up sufficient documentary proof of their identity – such as a birth certificate or a passport.
Here’s the kicker (as I have mentioned before, more than once) – not everyone has a birth certificate or a passport. And getting a birth certificate or a passport isn’t a cost-free transaction.
A little digging uncovered some private charitable groups that help homeless people get I.D. forms, and subsidize the cost of those forms – there’s a coalition of Presbyterian churches in downtown Houston (Main Street Ministries) that offers a homeless I.D. workshop on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:00 to 11:30 a.m., excluding holidays. But … that service is limited in scope, and is only available to homeless people who have a valid referral letter from an approved referring agency.
To be fair, I’ll grant you that “some limited charitable resources for getting a picture I.D.” isn’t the same thing as “no resources for getting a picture I.D.” It would be inaccurate to say that there are no avenues by which an impoverished homeless person could get the materials necessary to register to vote and cast a ballot.
But some things are just inherently harder to do when you don’t have a fixed residence address. For instance, there’s the problem of providing a residence for purposes of identifying a voting precinct.
Here in Austin, a homeless person could successfully complete a voter registration application by filling out the form and listing a physical geographic location (“under the overpass at IH35 and 12th Street”) as the residence. For a mailing address (in order to get the voter registration certificate), a person could then list “General Delivery” along with the zip code for the main post office.
Problem solved, right? Except … a person must provide two forms of i.d. and a valid residence address in order to receive mail from the General Delivery window at a regional mail distribution center, per the USPS Domestic Mail Manual. Except … there’s an exception to this requirement in the discretion of the local postmaster if a transient person is “known to the postmaster” and sufficiently well-identified.
Subjective, mushy, exceptions to general rules create certain fairness problems. A nice local postmaster might go to great lengths to assist homeless mail clients with securing no-cost P.O. boxes and long-term General Delivery accounts. Or not – when Seattle homeless sued the Postal Service in the late 1990s for failing to provide mail delivery, they were more-or-less poured out of court with an appellate decision that upheld the Postal Service’s broad discretion to chose how much or how little it needed to do to in terms of providing mail services to the homeless.
So, yay to you, homeless person, if you happen to live in an area where you can get mail delivery. But if you live somewhere where you can’t get mail delivery (say, if transportation issues and a lack of i.d. make it impossible for you to sign up for General Delivery), the Postal Service isn’t obligated as a matter of law to help you out.
Homeless people get to experience annoying Catch-22s involving ignorant voter registrars who insist on the primacy of a street address, wherein the homeless person submits a voter registration application, but has the application rejected because it doesn’t list a place that the voter registrar believes is a “real residence.”
WELL, OKAY. MAYBE HOMELESS PEOPLE HAVE TO WORK A LITTLE HARDER TO REGISTER TO VOTE. BUT VOTING IS IMPORTANT – IF THEY REALLY WANT TO VOTE, TRANSIENTS SHOULD BE WILLING TO PUT UP WITH A LITTLE PAIN AND FRUSTRATION
Um … okay. This is the sort of absentminded cruelty that leads to civil rights violations, because it belies a popular and common attitude – that the homeless are morally inferior and undeserving of any particular care or consideration when it comes to voting.
If that’s how one feels, why not apply that philosophy to other groups as well. Why do we coddle people who are disabled on Election Day? Why have we had a law on the books for the last 110 years allowing people in the extremis of terrible illness the right to vote from their sick beds on Election Day? And why do we coddle people who have just had a death in the family and been called away by the need to bury a loved one?
For that matter, why bother accommodating the absentee voting of people who are actually under fire in a foreign war zone? Shouldn’t we expect soldiers to just tough it out? I mean, if voting is so important and all, why should we make it easier for anyone to vote? Why not just have the entire electorate crawl through broken glass to get to the polling place? I mean, if democracy is so precious and all, shouldn’t we all be willing to suffer indignities, costs, and hardships that are thrown up as roadblocks to our vote?
Well, no. obviously. First of all, most of us aren’t heartless psychopaths who take pleasure from the pain of other human beings. And secondly, most of us understand how the whole “fairness” thing works, because we occasionally benefit from the kindness of others, and can empathize with people who find themselves in need of kindness.
I mean, it would be one thing if we all faced exactly the same burdens on our ability to cast a ballot – then one could at least argue that the pain and cost of voting was distributed evenly among all voters. But that isn’t the case – some people have a significantly harder time casting a ballot than others. And to the extent that some people face greater hurdles to participation means that those people are disproportionately less likely to be able to participate as voters in an election.
We would only exclude those people from participation (and preserve the exclusionary barriers limiting participation in the organs of self-government) if we really didn’t want those people to participate. And that way lies the path to insurrection, rebellion, and death.
The homeless are entitled to participate in elections with the same ease and transparency of process as any of the rest of us, whether we are renters, homeowners, fabulously wealthy, desperately poor, or living under a bridge. And until the homeless are able to participate in elections with the same ease and lack of constant scrutiny and suspicion. we cannot say that we are free citizens of a democracy.
As other commenters have pointed out, today’s decision upholding the determination that Texas violated the Voting Rights Act is a painfully contorted partial affirmance and remand to the trial court for a remedy. (The link is to the copy of the opinion provided on Rick Hasen’s blog).
The appellate court in effect has said, “Well, Texas doesn’t always charge for birth certificates now (thanks to a mildly remedial law passed in the 2015 legislative session), so we think the picture ID requirement isn’t a poll tax. And … we think the trial court relied too much on an historical record of racial discrimination in Texas. That’s just mean. So … we’re remanding the decision to see if the trial court can find any more evidence of current racial discrimination. We grudgingly admit that the Texas picture ID law is illegal, but we’ll leave it to the trial court to figure out a way to carefully invalidate only those portions of the law that are bad. Which might not be the whole law.”
It’s really a terrible decision in a lot of ways; a sort-of wishy-washy agonized small-voiced acknowledgment that Texas broke the law, mixed in with page after page of carefully-worded dismissal of the mountains of factual evidence of intentional racial discrimination that prompted the law’s development in the first place.
Gosh. All that historical stuff just leaves the Court woozy and afraid that maybe the trial court was too hard on poor old Texas.