The Texas Legislature's sweeping 2011 effort to strengthen the state's voter ID laws was largely swept off the books Wednesday when a federal judge signed off on amendments to the controversial statute. But advocates who challenged the law in court fear Texas won't do enough to educate voters about the relaxed requirements.
"That's the hardest part; letting people know they don't have to have a photo ID to vote now," said Rolando Rios, a San Antonio attorney who worked on the case.
The changes, which were the result of an agreement between Texas, the federal Department of Justice and voting rights groups, will go into effect ahead of November's elections.
They effectively gut the state's strict five-year-old voter ID law, which allowed election officials to accept fewer forms of ID than any other state. Minority groups argued the laws disproportionately prevented Hispanics and blacks from voting. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and in July declared the law a violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act, and asked a federal district court in Texas, where the case originated, to come up with a solution. Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi did just that, and the watered-down law makes voting easier for Texans.
For example, the new rules expand the number of ID documents voters can present, and voters without photo identification may cast a ballot so long as they complete a form explaining why they lack a photo ID. Importantly, election officials are barred under the new rules from challenging a voter's explanation for not having a photo ID.
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Texas must also spend at least $2.5 million on voter education efforts before November. But Rios, who represents the Texas Association of Hispanic County Judges and Commissioners, said the organization worries Texas will drag its feet on this crucial step.
Rios said he visited websites of the Secretary of State and county clerks and saw many still state voters must have a voter ID to cast a ballot — almost a month after a court struck down the requirement.
"A lot of damage has been done already," Rios lamented. "The hard part is going to be to correct the perception the public might have."
Rios said he and other attorneys who challenged the law will pressure Texas to expand its voter education efforts — as required by the agreement — since Election Day arrives in just 88 days.