Almost 18 Texans are struck by lightning each year and nine live to tell the tale. With a state population of over 25 million, a Texan’s odds of dying that unusual death are one in three million.
The Texas League of Young Voters, an organization that encourages political participation among youth in low-income and minority communities, will tell you that death by lightning is more common than voter fraud in this state. The League’s assessment undercuts the relevance of Texas’ new voter ID law, which would attack a relatively rare crime with one of the strictest voting laws in the country.
Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made arguments for and against the law at a hearing before three federal judges in Washington, D.C., which ended July 13. The Department of Justice contends that minorities, who are less likely to possess an approved form of government ID such as a driver’s license, will be discouraged from voting if the new law is enforced. Conversely, the Texas attorney general’s office argued that few Texans would be unduly burdened by the new identification requirement, and that voter fraud is widespread enough to warrant stricter rules.
Both proponents and opponents of the law oversimplify the issue. Abbott says that in the past 10 years his office has successfully prosecuted 50 violations of the Texas Election Code. Basic math suggests Abbott is defending a law that would protect against a phenomenon that occurs even less frequently than the proverbial lethal lightning strike.
The law’s opponents argue it could disenfranchise minorities, who make up the majority of Texas’ population growth and are less likely to possess a government-issued photo ID. By requiring photo identification at the polls, minorities — who typically vote Democratic in a Republican state — will be less likely to vote. Although voter identification cards would be free at DPS offices across the state, the inconvenience of acquiring a card may keep meaningful numbers of Texans from voting. According to The New York Times, residents of West Texas, for example, would have to drive in excess of 200 miles just to get a form of identification that would allow them to vote. Students should be concerned too, because although a state institution issued your UT ID card, it won’t count as an appropriate form of identification when you go to vote. A concealed handgun license will, however, get the job done. Texas is not the first state to try and enforce a photo ID requirement at the polls, though its law is among the strictest. Seventeen states have ID laws – Texas’ law makes few forms of ID acceptable at the polls and requires anyone trying to vote without an ID to return with an appropriate form of identification within several days of the election in order for their vote to count. In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, Abbott praised Indiana’s ID laws, but conceded the state’s law would fail to prevent any of the instances of voter fraud prosecuted in Indiana in the past seven years.
Though the federal judges’ decision is not expected to be delivered until August, students don’t need to know the outcome to know that their political voice may be jeopardized. Teens and college-age students today are almost 25 percent less likely to hold a driver’s license than their parents. If the law is upheld, voting is about to get more complicated for those without an ID.
Both sides of the debate rely largely on hypotheticals. The Attorney General’s office frequently points to the fact that 50,000 deceased Texans on the state’s voter rolls and argues that might invite identity fraud at the polls.
Finding transportation to the DMV might be inconvenient enough to dissuade people from bothering to get the identification they’ll need to vote.
Anything that undermines the legitimacy of the democratic process should be scrutinized closely. Seven other states tackled voter fraud with laws that don’t make it so difficult for their residents to vote. South Carolina and Georgia allow students at public universities to use their college IDs to vote, but Texas legislators decided that the state’s concealed gun license registry was a better identification method. The fact that Texas’ law makes voting easier for gun owners but harder for university students betrays an agenda beyond simply protecting the legitimacy of the state’s polling system.
Texas students need to recognize when a proposed law threatens to muffle the volume of their political voices. For any benefit Texas’ voter ID law may bring in terms of democratic legitimacy, it threatens to make playing the role of the politically apathetic college student that much easier. As volunteers at the voter registration drives on the West Mall well know, Texas already has enough apathy among its students.