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Implementing Photo I.D. Requirements In Texas Elections — An Oral History

Reporter Jessica Huseman of ProPublica spent the last six months working on a huge, complicated feature story, and the fruit of her efforts was posted Tuesday, May 2, on the Texas Tribune and ProPublica sites.

The lengthy story is excellent; it summarizes and clarifies the complicated motives and mechanisms by which lawmakers more-or-less knowingly painted themselves into the corner of having to pass the 2011 photo I.D. restrictions.

That is, in order to count coup against moderate Republicans and the Democratic party rump in the Texas Legislature, state officials pushed the adoption of a restriction on voting that was not only deliberately provocative, but also illegal.

Subsequently, the State lacked the capacity, desire, or ability to allocate resources to mitigate the damage caused by the ill-conceived new law, compounding its … uh … I guess you would say, “bad optics” when attempting to mount a legal defense of the voter I.D. law in federal court.

But read the story — it’s rich and telling, and deserves close study.

P. S. Disclosure: Ms. Huseman interviewed me for the story.

Mini roundup of Texas election law stories

1. Voter Registration — Status of TCRP Suit To Enforce Federal Motor Voter Laws

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety, and just to refresh you, here’s what’s going on:

  • Texas provides a website portal for the online renewal of drivers’ licenses, which should in theory also allow voters to easily update their voter registration.
  • BUT … for voters who have moved from one Texas county to another, online renewal carries pitfalls, including unexpected “gotcha” cancellations of existing voter registration status, and confusing or misleading information about how voter registration renewal works.
  • Thousands of Texas voters have unwittingly had their voter registrations cancelled when they attempted to update their status online.
  • Recently, the State of Texas was sanctioned by a federal district court for unconscionable delays in responding to the plaintiff’s discovery requests.
  • The trial is scheduled to take place this Ssummer.

2. Department of Justice Shifts to the State’s Side on Texas Voter ID Suit

  • In a February 28 interview with the Texas Standard, (link to audio here: http://www.texasstandard.org/stories/justice-department-drops-opposition-to-texas-voter-id-law), election law expert Richard Hasen discussed the decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to end its legal opposition to the Texas Voter I.D. law.
  • With Jeff Sessions in charge at the Department of Justice, and with anticipated conservative justices appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the position of the plaintiffs is now more precarious.
  • This follow-up story from Slate covered the most recent trial court hearing; the plaintiffs described the judge as skeptical of the State’s argument.

3. Regional Briefs

  • Voter assistance or improper electioneering in Robstown, Texas? – KRISTV (the NBC affiliate TV station in Corpus Christi) has this interesting story about a candidate who was elected to a local utility district seat in November after assisting voters with their ballots.
    • In response to the argument that the candidate’s presence in the polling place constituted electioneering, the city manager pointed out that voters who are unable to read or mark a ballot are legally permitted to ask for and receive polling place assistance from a candidate.
  • Errors in 2016 election likely the result of voter confusion, not intentional fraud –
    • This story from Mysanantonio.com expresses the position of Bexar County election officials that to the extent voters with photo I.D.s may have completed affidavits alleging a lack of sufficient I.D. prior to voting, the erroneous use of the affidavits was likely a consequence of the confusing shifts in state voter I.D. procedures that were rolled out just prior to the November 2016 election, and not reflective of a pattern of intentional voter fraud.

Texas election news: Pasadena, Texas, required to seek preclearance for any changes in voting or election procedure

If you haven’t already read this excellent story from the New York Times about the City of Pasadena, Texas, check it out, as it’s necessary for context. Also, take a look at Professor Rick Hasen’s analysis of the initial court ruling and his comments on the subsequent order regarding enforcement of the initial ruling.

Other useful context: Texas has a long history of discriminatory voting laws.

***

Why this matters: this is the first jurisdiction since the Shelby County v. Holder decision that has had preclearance requirements imposed on it by a federal court.

Briefly, and for those of you who are new to this story, here are the highlights:  In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the above-mentioned decision that cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, effectively eliminating the historical process whereby the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed changes in voting procedures adopted by certain jurisdictions.

Emboldened by this Supreme Court decision, the mayor of the City of Pasadena, Texas, then pushed a new city election strategy, allegedly (per the NYT story above) to limit the power of Hispanic voters in municipal elections.

Pasadena, Texas, has a large Hispanic population (about 62.2% of the roughly 154,000 people who live there), but its city government has been dominated by whites, and the city has historically been racially polarized.

By replacing single-member districts with at-large districts, the new city election plan diluted minority voting strength and reduced the likelihood that Hispanic voters could get proportionate representation on the city council.

The city was sued, and now, three years later, a federal court has ruled that the city-altered method for choosing its city council members was motivated by “racial animus,” the finding that (under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act) justified court-ordered preclearance for local laws affecting elections .

As a consequence of the federal court’s finding that the City of Pasadena’s method for electing city council members was intended to limit the ability of Hispanic voters to influence city policy, the city’s racially motivated redistricting plan has been struck down.

Importantly, the city has been ordered to submit future changes in city redistricting and voting procedures to the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice for review.

The story is particularly timely and relevant as the future of voting rights enforcement in our country hangs in the balance.

As noted in multiple news stories, Jeff Sessions—the current nominee for the position of U.S. Attorney General—has had what can best be described as a “chequered” (or “checkered,” for us Americans) past with respect to his opposition to civil rights generally, has been openly hostile towards the Voting Rights Act for his entire legal career, and is now poised to helm the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the case of Mr. Sessions’ pending appointment to the position as the highest attorney in the federal government, the clichéd phrase, “fox in the henhouse” doesn’t quite sum up the potential damage to civil rights enforcement.

Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is more, “Tyson Industries announces appointment of ravenous vulpine predator to be responsible for overseeing all domestic chicken production in U.S.”

Professor Lawrence Lessig & Team Offering Free Confidential Legal Advice For Presidential Electors

My wife asked about The Electors Trust, a group of lawyers offering “free and strictly confidential legal support to any Elector who wishes to vote their conscience,” and so at her suggestion, I’m posting the link for its relevance to the Texas electors.

And here’s Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig’s article explaining how the Electors Trust works, and what his intentions are in offering this advice.

I’m still working through my own thoughts regarding the Electoral College, so-called “faithless electors,” and our oddly structured Presidential elections, and will take some time to unpack them in a (very near) future post.

Recent Texas Election Stories You May Have Missed (2016 December 14)

My apologies for having not posted more frequently lately; I guess the impending collapse of Western Democracy has been leaving me feeling a bit unmotivated. (More about that in a later post). Here are a few quick links to catch up on some Texas election news:

I. TEXAS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTORS DO THEIR THING

The San Angelo Standard-Times has this story about two defections from the slate of Texas electors who will meet to cast their ballots in the Texas Capitol on 2:00 p.m. on December 19.

I’ll unpack this story in a separate post because it deserves more scrutiny (what with democracy teetering on the brink and all), but essentially the Standard-Times story repeats the received experiential wisdom of many election experts — that nothing exciting or new is going to happen with the Electoral College, because nothing exciting or new ever happens with the Electoral College.

The story notes in passing that Republican state officials are now considering legislation to punish any future so-called “rogue electors” in response to the defections. The text of the proposed bill (H.B. 543, filed by Representative John Raney) is here, and as currently drafted, the bill imposes a $5,000 fine on electors who fail to vote the party line.

II. IS THE TOWN OF BROCK EVEN REALLY REAL?

From the Palestine Herald-Press, this story about a dispute between the newly incorporated village of Brock and the city of Weatherford, regarding a proposed May 2017 election in Brock to choose a mayor and city council. The problem here is that when Brock incorporated, it did its incorporation election “wrong” by failing to include an initial slate of city officials in the ballot. Oops.

So the Weatherford city attorney is taking the position that the proposed May 2017 municipal general election in Brock is illegal. Meanwhile, the attorney for the putative legal entity (the town of Brock) is arguing in effect, “well, what exactly are we supposed to do? We got a judge to order a make-up election to fix our mistake, and we have to have a city council at some point, right?”

At heart, I suspect this is really a fight driven by the zero-sum game of local property tax revenue — another taxing entity in the county means another governmental competitor for statutorily limited tax dollars (because of the tax rate ceiling cap on local tax assessments).

In effect, the City of Weatherford’s attorney is saying that the town of Brock never really incorporated, because the town’s incorporation election was such an error-strewn screwed-up mess. Those are technical legal terms, by the way.

III. WHAT IS GOING ON IN KAUFMAN COUNTY?

From InForney.com comes this story about a newly elected county commissioner submitting paperwork to decline the oath of office. Greg Starek campaigned actively for the post in the March 2016 Republican Party primary, and (as with most Republican candidates in Kaufman County) was unopposed in the general election. The story gives no indication as to why Mr. Starek is now declining the seat, which will need to be filled by appointment. The lack of details means my curiosity about the circumstances is unsatisfied.

IV. SCHOOL BOARD ELECTIONS IN THE VALLEY ARE ALWAYS EXCITING!

From McCallen’s The Monitor comes this depressingly familiar story of alleged election fraud in a Rio Grande City school district election. And of course, it involves mail-in ballots.

The losing candidates (who ran together on a slate referred to as the ‘U.S.S. Restore’ team) allege that the winning candidates (who ran together on a slate referred to as the ‘Kid’s Choice’ political team) relied on 200 forged or unsigned mail ballots to carry the election, and also that election workers improperly harassed voters who requested “assistance” from campaign workers in casting their ballots.

Like I said, this is depressingly familiar, even in the weird details of the election’s alleged “wrongness.” There’s the allegation of ballot farming and signature forgery. There’s the partisan factionalism, a feature of Valley politics that we don’t generally see in more settled and sleepy school board elections in other parts of the state. There’s the fight over the legitimacy of the commonplace but fundamentally icky practice of campaign workers “offering assistance” to voters in the polling place.

And the weirdest element of the story for someone not living in the Valley may be the intensity and scorched-earth rhetoric of the criminal allegations in an election where by law (per Section 11.061(d), Texas Education Code) the winners earn no salary or other emolument and have what in most communities is perceived as the largely invisible, dull, and thankless job of running a school district (as an illustrative example of this observation, note the summary descriptions of cancelled unopposed trustee elections and elections with unfilled seats in this October 2016 Waco Tribune story about independent school district elections in and around the Waco area).

As is so often the case, the story “behind the story” is left untold. Again, it’s about money, and not just whatever income the school district can derive from the admittedly limited local property tax base, but also the money redistributed to Rio Grande City CISD by the Texas Education Agency. In a community of limited resources, control of that money is a matter of intense, all-consuming importance, to the point where elections become epic no-holds battles.

#Trump’s Twitter Problem: Life In “Post-Truth” America

Our presumptive President-Elect chose to take time out from his Sunday (November 27) to inform us via Twitter (with no evidence) that millions of people voted illegally, and that but for those illegal votes, he would have won the popular vote nationally. (As of this writing Hillary Clinton is more than 2,200,000 ballots ahead of Trump in the popular vote).

To repeat: Mr. Trump made this statement based on absolutely no evidence, and in the teeth of overwhelming rebutting evidence that what he has said is simply and unequivocally false.

Not to mention that he has in the space of a couple of inflammatory Tweets managed to insult the professionalism and intelligence of every county and state voter registrar, election worker, poll watcher, precinct judge, county elections board member, and state election officer in the country, not to mention every—or at least 3 million—of us voters.

If this is what we have to look forward to for the next four years, the ratings for Trump’s reality TV version of the federal government should be through the roof, right? So at least we have that going for us. It’s obscene—if understandable; this is the PEOTUS, after all— that this story got any traction at all.

But first, given that in my last post I opined that the Clinton campaign would be unlikely to seek recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and given that events have proven my opinion to be wrong, let’s address the decision by the Clinton campaign to piggyback on the Jill Stein campaign’s recount requests.

General counsel to Hillary for America Marc Elias (via a statement posted on Medium, and as quoted extensively in Rick Hasen’s blog) makes it clear that Hillary Clinton is wholly realistic about the likelihood that the recounts will not change the outcome of the election, but that such recounts should prove useful as audits of the accuracy and integrity of the election process and to settle fears regarding the risks of result-changing “hacks.”

Briefly, the Clinton campaign would not have pursued recounts but for the fact that

(1) The Stein campaign raised the money and filed the paperwork to get the ball rolling, and

(2) Voters were collectively so disturbed and agitated by evidence of foreign meddling and interference in the election that it made sense for the Clinton campaign to join in the recount effort in order to bring closure to the election.

So why did Stein’s campaign ask for recounts in the first place?

I don’t know—I guess it’s possible that the Stein campaign coordinated with the Clinton campaign, but that seems unlikely, given that neither campaign will benefit in any direct political way from behind-the-scenes cooperation.

I suspect that the Stein recount was motivated by no more than what it seems to be on its face—a grassroots-driven gift propelled by very real and understandable anxiety on the part of committed Stein supporters who could not have been happy with the idea of a Trump victory, especially if it was the result of some sort of direct interference or manipulation of the vote totals in key precincts.

Finally, Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written a nice summary explanation as to why Russia benefits—at least in the short term—from all this anxiety.

 

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.