Between 16,000 and 17,000 Texans who said they had trouble getting a voter ID were able to sign an affidavit and vote in the last presidential election, thanks to a court order. Now lawmakers want to make it a felony if a voter signing such a form “knowingly makes a false statement or provides false information.”
The state was forced to let people vote last year even if they couldn’t comply with its strict voter ID requirements, after a federal appeals court ruled the law was discriminatory.
Voters could sign a legal form saying they had trouble obtaining an ID and then cast a regular ballot.
Thousands of Texans voted this way, but the way the forms were used ran the gamut. And now lawmakers are looking to crack down on who is allowed to use an affidavit to vote.
Sixteen-thousand may seem like a small number, considering the millions of Texans who voted in November, but Jennifer Clark with the Brennan Center for Justice doesn’t see it that way.
“To me that certainly doesn’t seem like a low number at all. That seems like a very significant number,” she said.
Thousands of eligible voters in Texas probably wouldn’t have voted if it weren’t for the court order, she said. And this number is just a snapshot of whom the voter ID law affected.
“It doesn’t include people who stayed away because they may not have known about that option,” Clark said. “It doesn’t include people who got there to the polls, but for one reason or another were not given that option.”
One possible reason folks may not have been given the option of signing an affidavit is that there was a lot of confusion. Voters reported that poll workers were apparently not aware of the changes.
Travis County Clerk Dana Debeauvoir said timing was partially to blame for that.
“The law that eased the overly restrictive ID requirement … was implemented very quickly,” she said. “We weren’t given a lot of time to do the training for it. And it was entirely possible for well-meaning people to make a mistake that did no harm.”
According to recent reporting from The Associated Press, mistakes were made in roughly 500 instances. The AP found some people actually had IDs, didn’t show them and signed the form anyway.
Debeauvoir said she didn’t see problems like this in Travis County, but she can see how mistakes could happen.
Who’s to blame for the errors depends entirely on whom you ask.
Clark said state officials didn’t do enough to make sure election workers were properly trained on the changes made by the court order.
“Texas was taken back to court multiple times because they were either spreading misinformation or they were failing to spread adequate information about the affidavit option,” she said. “So, I would say the blame really lies at their feet.”
The Texas Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, had said throughout the election that it was doing the best it could to make sure all 254 counties had the proper information.
A spokesperson also routinely pointed out that elections in Texas are decentralized. So, the agency just does not have the power to lower the hammer when mistakes are made.
But there’s another group politicians want to blame: the voters.
Following the AP’s story, a group of Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 5, which makes it a third-degree felony if a voter “knowingly makes a false statement or provides false information on a declaration.”
That’s problematic, Beth Stevens with the Texas Civil Rights Project said.
“That appears to be an effort to intimidate voters and obviously that would be a negative thing,” she said.
Stevens sees other issues with the bill, too. She said the bill restricts the reasons people could use the affidavit to vote when they don’t have an ID. The court order was fairly broad – allowing anyone who faced “a reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID to sign a form and vote.
SB 5 would limit this to voters who have issues related to a lack of transportation, a lack of birth certificate or other documents needed to obtain identification, their work schedule, a lost or stolen identification, illness, family responsibilities or if their identification has been applied for but not received.
Steven said there’s also some confusing language about whether a person’s voter registration address needs to match the addresses on his or her ID.
Amidst all of this, things aren’t even completely settled with the Texas voter ID law.
On Tuesday, a federal judge will begin a hearing on whether Texas lawmakers intended to discriminate against minorities when they passed the voter ID bill in 2011.
Debeauvoir said she thinks lawmakers should wait for more guidance from the courts before they move forward with more rules.
“I think we do need to listen to the courts first,” she said. “Let’s hear what their opinions are on different types of identification before we go back and take another shot at writing a new law."
Correction: A previous version of this post said the voter ID bill passed in 2013.