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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.

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Happy Birthday, Texas Election Law Blog! – A Look Backward and Forward

I have a lot to write about, but first, I wanted to acknowledge the just-passed two-year anniversary of the Texas Election Law Blog.

Two Years Ago

On July 2, 2013, just days after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, I was fired from my job as a staff attorney at the Elections Division of the Texas Secretary of State’s office. My employer’s stated reason for firing me was that I had made intemperate remarks about what I can now call a particularly egregious miscarriage of a special district election in Montgomery County, Texas.

That election is now back in the news, after the 14th Court of Appeals remanded the first criminal case for a new trial.

I started this blog the day after I was fired, because

  • My job — to provide unbiased explanation and advice about administering fair and legal elections in the state of Texas — still needs to be done, in part because
  • In my professional opinion, the Elections Division at the Texas Secretary of State is now falling down at its mission — not because of the hard-working staff, but because of changes under the previous governor.

Unpacking the details of my termination raises all sorts of questions, not just about my professional qualifications and my flaws or merits individually as an attorney specializing in election-related matters, but also about the role of the Texas Secretary of State as chief elections official for the State of Texas, the complex interactions of money, self-interest, and law in elections administration, the slow diminishment of a once-effective advisory agency over the course of former Governor Perry’s tenure as chief executive officer of the State, and the larger battles over the soul of American democracy that are being fought state-by-state across the United States.

At least initially, I saw this blog as a platform for providing hard-working citizens (including election administrators) with some very modest enhancements to the dissemination of election law information relevant to Texans. Although I’m not a information architect or user experience expert, I was frustrated for years that the Elections Division’s website, while good in many respects, had such a peculiarly structured design. Election law opinions were missing; forms were not not where you’d expect to find them, and so on.

Just putting all the forms in one list was a comparatively easy fix (though I’ve been remiss in keeping it updated; that’s one of my tasks looking forward), and at some level I hoped that my own modest and amateurish improvements would shame top agency decisionmakers into paying attention to the agency’s role as an advisor to local, county, and state officials in elections administration.

What’s Changed for Me

I had been scrupulously nonpartisan while employed at the Secretary of State’s office — party affiliations and policy preferences were outside the ambit of my purview. (I wouldn’t even let my wife put political signs in our yard or bumperstickers on our car.)

I was, and remain, sympathetic to the day-to-day management concerns faced by county clerks and tax assessors who likely would not see eye-to-eye with me on many political questions at a personal level.

While at the Elections Division, and now, party planks and philosophical disagreements never angered me. I’m slow to anger. What did get to me was willful maladministration at the county level. (Here my editor has redacted a few specific examples, noting this blog is not the venue for what is now — since years have passed — lukewarm political chatter.) All that said, however, with almost no exceptions, I liked everyone I talked to — even the people I was annoyed with.

I mean everyone …  even the possibly disturbed caller who floridly cursed me as “a maggot on Satan’s cracked hoof.”

All the callers I talked with, day in and day out, are gloriously, endlessly varied human beings, with rich contradictions and complicated feelings, and they were — and are — all trying to various degrees and with varying levels of success to conform their actions to some great social ideal as articulated in our state and federal election laws.

What got to me near the end of my tenure in the Elections Division was the Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle the regulatory framework of the Civil Rights era.

Moving Democracy Backward

Picture I.D. laws, restrictions on volunteer deputy registrars, and racially discriminatory redistricting, as well as Wild West campaign finance laws, stupid residency definitions, fear-driven race baiting, the disruption of polling places, candidate intimidation, and other acts of dirty political pool are all of a package with a more general philosophy adopted by members of the extreme Right — that political coups are preferable to elections, because the “wrong side” sometimes wins elections.

This political strategy is toxic to democracy and to our nation’s founding values. At what point will the extreme Right conclude that overt coups are preferable to elections (or subtle coups), because the “wrong side” sometimes wins elections?

As the mechanisms for free and fair elections are rendered less effective, the resentments of those shut out will grow. As our legislatures and leaders short-sightedly vandalize the instruments of suffrage, they turn the clock back to a time when our cities burned. Our cities are burning again, and will burn again and again until (some) policymakers learn that short-term political victory through anti-democratic means is self-defeating and costly.

A Way Forward

More to come. And your ideas welcome. This is important, folks!