New Voter ID, Unavailable in Seventy Counties in State, Opens With Wealth of Issues Remaining

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Between Sen. Wendy Davis's filibuster and the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, this week has been a strangely successful one for progressives in Texas. However, there was a ruling before either of these realities that girded conservatives and tea partiers in the state. On Tuesday, the SCOTUS ruled in a 5-4 decision that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act should be excised, and that Congress "may draft another formula based on current conditions." This section, which contained a formula forcing nine states and assorted counties to pre-clear electoral changes with the federal government, was one of the main pillars of the VRA, providing federal oversight to areas that had used traditionally discriminatory practices to prevent minorities from voting.

Texas, as you may have heard, was one of the nine states subjected to such federal pre-clearance, most recently with its attempts at voter ID legislation. The new regulations were the greatest accomplishment of the 2011 Legislative Session, but a federal court used the VRA to bar the legislation from implementation. Now, following the SCOTUS's new ruling, Attorney General Greg Abbott says he will be pushing for implementation as soon as possible. "With today's decision, the state's voter ID law will take effect immediately," he said on Tuesday.

Indeed, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, applications for the new Election Identification Certificates (EIC) were available yesterday, following Abbott's announcement. The EIC is now one of six options of state-approved forms of ID the state will require citizens to present while voting.

And while the process of obtaining an EIC is relatively straightforward -- the application is short, and you are presented with a receipt upon same-day approval that allows you to vote -- the burdens that led the federal court to its earlier decision remain.

"The regulations remained in basically suspended animation," Logan Churchwell, the public relations director with pro-regulation True the Vote, told the Houston Press. "We see this [ruling] as moving forward for our republic, and as a celebrated decision."

As currently structured, citizens will need to present both proof of US citizenship and identification in order to obtain an EIC. While the card itself is free, applicants would need to pay up to $22 for a birth certificate as one of the options for obtaining an EIC.

Churchwell disputed the notion that the cost should preclude anyone from obtaining the identification card.

"It's important not to zero in on the birth certificate aspect, as that's a very narrow interpretation of what you need for ID," Churchwell told the Press. "That's just too narrow of a reality."

However, other issues stand even more starkly. According to Katherine Cesinger, spokeswoman for TxDPS, citizens will need to apply for EICs at a TxDPS drivers license office. There is no option for a mail-in application. You must show up, in person, to obtain an EIC. But per the Press's calculations, there are 70 counties within Texas that do not provide such offices. From Irion and Crockett Counties in Central Texas to La Salle and Duvall Counties in South Texas, TxDPS's website shows that nearly 30 percent of Texas counties do not provide the necessary offices at which residents will have to arrive if they want to pick up an EIC.

A raft of other uncertainties remain. Cesinger said she didn't know how many Texans would apply for the new cards or how many would need them. "There are no projections for either of those," she said.

She also said she was unsure as to how long it would take to receive the EIC following an application, or what kind of outreach programs, if any, her department would use to educate Texans as to the new regulations.

"As far as it coming in mail, I'm not sure exactly on what the timing is," she said. "We're certainly working with the Secretary of State's office to educate the public on this. ... Again, this is pretty fresh."

Alicia Pierce, the Secretary of State's communications director, said her office would be unfurling a media campaign as the November election date moved closer, but that she was unsure what forms of educational outreach it would contain.

"We are always working to makes sure that Texans have all the info they need in order to vote, including now," Pierce told the Press. "You can't underestimate the importance of working with county officials, and they are a central part to getting word out."

They may not need to get the word out, however. US Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth), along with a handful of others, filed suit in federal court on Wednesday, challenging the state's new voter ID requirements.

"Just last year, a panel of federal judges in D.C. who were appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents, unanimously ruled that the Voter Photo ID law was discriminatory," Veasey said in a statement obtained by the Press. "It is absolutely outrageous that just hours after the SCOTUS ruling, Gregg Abbott implemented the Voter ID law, fully knowing that this very law was already ruled as discriminatory against minorities, the poor, and the elderly [sic]. This is only one example of why Section 5 must be preserved and reason enough that I, along with 6 other plaintiffs, filed suit in federal court to prevent any form of voter disenfranchisement."

However the upcoming litigation ends, voter ID within Texas remains as polarizing as it's ever been. While supporters see it as an effective method of combating voter fraud within the state, opponents point not simply to the reasons for which it was initially struck down in federal court, but also cite the demographic shifts the state is projected to see.

"The Supreme Court's decision is a disaster," Gerald Horne, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Houston, told the Press. "It's clear that the Republican Party in Texas is intimidated by the changing demographics of the state, with the rising Latino population in particular. ...

"They're engaged in desperate maneuvers because they see the numbers," Horne added. "The hard white right is hunkering down for its Alamo moment. Let's hope that we'll give it to them."

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