Texas leads states in enacting voting restrictions
AUSTIN, Texas -- Julia Shomenta, a senior at the University of Texas at Dallas, wants to help fellow students register to vote, but it's not easy.
To do that, she must be deputized twice, attend redundant training and spend hours delivering the registration slips in person to the right officials, thanks to new state laws.
"Adding extra hurdles right before an election -- I don't know why they'd do it. I wouldn't say that it's intended to disenfranchise voters, but it can have that effect," Shomenta said.
Meanwhile, Austin lawyer James Boyle received a "Dear Voter" letter at his home. In essence, election officials attempting to clean the voter rolls asked him if he was dead.
"It is a little shocking," he said. But even more disturbing, Boyle said, was that if he'd missed the letter, he would have found himself at the polls on Nov. 6 unable to vote.
The new laws enacted last year to govern registration and voter rolls and require photo ID have spawned numerous lawsuits. But they've also vaulted Texas to the forefront of a Republican-led wave of election changes. Few, if any states, have been as aggressive on as many fronts -- changing how people register, how they vote and how they stay on the rolls -- as Texas was in passing these laws last year.
State Republicans have touted the laws as a reasonable package of safeguards to assure integrity in the voting booth. Democrats and advocates for the poor see it another way: voter suppression -- a calculated gambit to make it harder for certain Democratic constituencies to vote.
"Texas is not the only state that has all of these, but it is notable because of its size," said Myrna Perez of New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice.
Virtually all such election proposals have been advanced by Republican-dominated legislatures, she said.
A federal court struck down Texas' voter ID bill, which mandated that certain kinds of official photo IDs be shown to cast a ballot, saying it contained "strict, unforgiving burdens" that would disproportionately affect minorities.
The state is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Perez pointed out that in its law, Texas allowed a concealed weapons permit to be an acceptable photo ID but not a university student ID. Such changes, along with the clampdown on voter registration drives that often target low-income neighborhoods, raise eyebrows.
"The concern is that politicians are manipulating the rules so that they can cherry-pick their electorate," Perez said.
Texas Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri said Texas is trying to enforce the rules, not manipulate them. The only voters the GOP wants to suppress, he said, are those who are ineligible.
"Whether they're under 18, don't live where they say they do, if they're not a citizen, or they're dead, they should not vote. We are absolutely trying to suppress illegal votes," Munisteri said. "We are 100 percent in favor of voter suppression for dead people."
Munisteri said ballot abuse is not a myth. In 1976, when he was first volunteering in politics, Ron Paul lost his first congressional election by fewer than 300 votes, and Munisteri said he found one ballot after another cast from addresses that were empty lots and abandoned houses.
"It was shocking," he said.
Attorney General Greg Abbott has claimed in numerous speeches that a check of voter rolls showed that 239 ballots were cast under the names of dead people in Texas elections.
A PolitiFact check found that claim to be "mostly false," but it did show that at least four people known to be dead were listed as having voted in the state's primaries in May.
Munisteri said that these examples show that fraud does exist and Texans should be united in countering it.
"The worst that can happen is that someone who is thought dead says, 'I'm alive.' And then that gets taken care of and they're allowed to vote. To me, that's a far better circumstance than someone who is dead is allowed to vote," he said.
On the voter ID law, he said he understands the court's reasoning, but he faults the judges for not allowing some easy remedies, such as allowing more types of ID to be used.
And on voter registration, it takes someone only a few minutes to fill out a card and mail it in. "I don't see there being a lot of hurdles," he said.
But for Shomenta, the UT-Dallas student, the new rules are difficult.
The law prohibits out-of-state volunteers. Only residents can sign others up. Also, registration volunteers must take a training course from the county elections office where they will be deputized. The law also prohibits mailing in registration cards; the deputies must bring them in person to the election office within five days of being filled out.
UTD is on the border of Dallas and Collin counties. Shomenta has become deputized in Dallas but must take the same course in Collin County so that she can sign up students who live in dorms north of the county line.
The Dallas registration cards must be driven downtown. The Collin County cards go to McKinney. And there's a deadline for getting them in.
The time required and the double training are difficult with a full school schedule, Shomenta said.
Such rules are the most burdensome in the nation, said Sarah Massey of the nonpartisan Project Vote, which helps train and support volunteers to work for greater participation in elections.
She said the new Texas law presents high hurdles, especially considering that the state historically has the eighth-lowest voter turnout.
"We'd like to see more early voting, universal registration, the type of reforms that make voting more attractive, fair and equal. And the state's doing exactly the opposite, unfortunately," Massey said.
Munisteri pointed out that in competitive races, such as the 2008 primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Texans have turned out to vote in high numbers.
It's not the rules keeping voter turnout low, he said, but more likely that the electorate recognizing GOP sweeps in statewide elections are a foregone conclusion.
He questioned why concerns are raised about Republicans trying to change the system but not about entrenched Democratic support of a flawed system that doesn't protect voters.
"I have yet to see a Democrat stand up anywhere and say it's important that people who are not legal to vote do not vote," he said.
He said he has concluded that Democrats "think they benefit from the dead people voting and the illegal people voting. It's a political calculation."
Jacob Limon of the Texas Democratic Party said his party is fighting to protect thousands of eligible people from being turned away at the polls.
"And we're having success in the courts because they have found the laws to be discriminatory actions," Limon said.