By Matthew Watkins, The Dallas Morning News (MCT)
DALLAS — For the fourth straight election, Texas’ strict voter ID law is in effect. For the fourth straight time, opinion varies widely on how the law will affect the vote.
During early voting, Dallas County officials have reported a few issues stemming from confusion over the law — though nothing widespread. Early voting ended Friday.
Meanwhile, local party leaders are taking their usual stances: Democrats say voters are being disenfranchised. Republicans say the law has barely changed anything.
Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole said the biggest challenge her office has faced is educating poll workers on the rules. Tuesday’s election is expected to have by far the biggest turnout since the law took effect last year. That means more election workers and, therefore, new people to train.
Beyond that, legal wrangling over the law left Pippins-Poole and her staff unsure about what to tell poll workers until the last minute. The law wasn’t expected to be in force this year until a last-minute reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Texas law, one of the strictest in the nation, requires a voter to show one of several forms of identification at the polls. Those can include a driver’s license, a concealed handgun license, a military identification card, a citizen certificate or a passport. People who don’t have any of those can obtain an election identification card or a personal identification card from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The law was passed in 2011, but originally blocked by the federal government under the authority of the Voting Rights Act. Then in 2013, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act allowed the Texas law to go into effect.
That seemed to change in October, when a federal judge in Corpus Christi ruled that the law created “an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.” However, on Oct. 18, two days before early voting began, the Supreme Court denied an emergency request to put the law on hold for the current election.
Pippins-Poole said her staff had been prepared for that ruling and advised election workers to be ready to enforce the law. When early voting started, poll workers should have known what to do, she said.
But there has been confusion. Some workers assumed that only a driver’s license could be used to vote. Others didn’t understand that a person without the proper identification could fill out a provisional ballot, which could be confirmed at election headquarters later.
“We have had to go out to several of our locations to retrain,” Pippins-Poole said.
Such instances alarm Democrats, who contend that the law is designed to discourage poor people, minorities and college students from voting. Those groups tend to vote for Democrats, so Republicans who supported the law stand to benefit from it, the Democrats say.
Democratic officials in Dallas and elsewhere in Texas say they’ve been fielding calls from confused and frustrated voters during early voting. They’ve say they’ve heard from disabled Texans who can’t get to DPS offices to pick up their state-issued IDs unless someone gives them a ride, and from people who’ve moved from out of state and don’t yet have Texas drivers licenses. And one transgender woman, the Democrats say, was unlawfully turned away from the polls.
“We are having incidents reported to us every day about voters who are either turned away or didn’t like the way they were treated in regards to the voter ID law,” said Taylor Holden, executive director of the Dallas County Democratic Party.
In most cases, the party could help callers find a way to vote, she said. But she worries about those people who encountered problems and didn’t think to call anyone.
Wade Emmert, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that the law has suppressed the vote.
“Things seem to be going relatively smoothly,” he said. Any “hiccups” during early voting are not the rsult of the voter ID law, he said.
In the end, it may be impossible to determine what influence, if any, the law has on turnout. Too many other factors — the quality of the candidates, the political atmosphere and even the weather on Election Day — affect the numbers.
So far, turnout seems to be down in Dallas County. Through Thursday, 156,453 people had voted early. That’s 5 percent less than at the same point in 2010, the last gubernatorial election year.
But in the March primaries, turnout was up slightly, even though the law was in effect. In those primaries, only 13 people in Dallas County filled out provisional ballots.
Photo: Bill & Heather Jones via Flickr