Welcome to Texas in 2012, where lawsuits about elections are more interesting (and competitive!) than actual elections.
First it was redistricting that brought the state to federal courts in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., and now Voter ID will have its turn. Three federal judges in D.C. will begin hearing arguments Monday in State of Texas v. Eric Holder, which finds Texas seeking pre-clearance of SB 14, a.k.a. "the Voter ID" law.
If you are registered to vote, you may already have the warning on your Voter Registration Certificate: "Upon federal approval of a photo identification law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011, a voter must show one of the following forms of photo identification at the polling location," including a driver's license, concealed handgun license, military ID, or U.S. Passport.
Michael Li of Texas Redistricting, sums up the main legal issue:
The trial will address both the claims that the photo ID law has a disparate impact on African-American and Hispanic voters and that the law was enacted with “a discriminatory purpose: the disenfranchisement of Hispanic and black voters.”
The trial, however, will not address claims by the State of Texas that the preclearance requirements of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are unconstitutional -- an issue the court will take up in separate proceedings only if the court finds grounds to deny preclearance.
If the law is precleared by August 31, the State of Texas has said that it will still have time to implement the law for November 2012 elections.
As Richard S. Dunham and Elizabeth Traynor of the Houston Chronicle explained, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was spearheaded by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 and reauthorized most recently (for the fifth time) by President George W. Bush in 2006, "requires jurisdictions with a historical pattern of discrimination to win federal 'pre-clearance' from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before implementing changes in voting laws or political lines."
And the Fort Worth Star-Telegram noted in an unsigned editorial that one issue the Justice Department has with the Texas law is it might not be as easy as you'd think for some voters to get state ID, especially if they're elderly or live in rural areas:
The department found, based on the state's data, that more than 600,000 registered voters lack a driver's license or ID card provided by the Department of Public Safety and a disproportionate share are Hispanic. The department said that making free DPS cards available wasn't enough because 81 of the state's 254 counties don't have offices, only 49 of the 221 offices stay open late or on weekends and Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanics to lack convenient transportation.
But what the debate really boils down to is, "How big is the voter fraud problem?" Dunham and Traynor continued:
While the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks voter ID laws, reports there is little evidence to bolster claims of voter fraud or discrimination, [Texas Attorney General Greg] Abbott cites 50 election fraud convictions in Texas and more than 100 defendants prosecuted by the Department of Justice in the past decade.
"I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter ID is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system," Abbott said in an interview. "It's time for politics to be put aside and allow the Texas voter ID law to be put into effect, just like similar laws that exist across the country."
Abbott was countered by Democratic state representative Joaquin Castro, of San Antonio, who told the Chronicle, "It's purely an electoral strategy for the Republican party to preserve their political power."
Last month in Pennsylvania, Republican House Majority leader Mike Turzai made headlines when he said, while ticking off a list of legislative wins, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done.”
As Gary Scharrer of the San Antonio Express-News reported in March, "Fewer than five 'illegal voting' complaints involving voter impersonations were filed with the Texas Attorney General's Office from the 2008 and 2010 general elections in which more than 13 million voters participated."
But in an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman , Abbott argued there have been statewide elections where the margin was so small that even just a little bit of fraud could make a difference.
He added that "in 2012, alone, five local elections in Texas reportedly resulted in a tie and were ultimately resolved by a coin toss, a dice game or a second runoff election."
(A dice game ! Can't we do them all that way?)
Abbott also took some hard shots at the Act's originator, in a point- counterpoint about the legacy of LBJ with Travis County Democratic Party chairman Andy Brown."What would LBJ say to Greg Abbott?" Brown wrote, a question the Attorney General didn't shy away from:
Commending LBJ for preserving electoral integrity turns a blind eye to history. As Johnson biographer Robert Caro detailed in his latest book, LBJ's political career was fueled by voter fraud. Johnson's 1948 election to the U.S. Senate hung on the late discovery of "200 new votes cast in alphabetical order and all in the same handwriting six days after the polls had closed . . .
Some have questioned what LBJ would say about Texas' legal fight against the Obama administration's efforts to prevent the state from implementing its voter ID law.
Given Johnson's reliance on voter fraud to propel his political career, there is little doubt he would oppose any law that helps deter, detect and prevent election fraud. That shows Texas is doing the right thing.
(Uh-oh. We think the AG just confused the "recent" The Passage of Power with 1990's Means of Ascent . Can we trust his other figures?)
(Editor's Note: This story originally referred to the Voter ID bill as SB 30. It is SB 14. Also,