Misplaced ID teaches voting-rights lesson in Texas

Voter-ID laws erect obstacles that keep us from voting. [Shutterstock photo]

Voter-ID laws erect obstacles that keep us from voting. [Shutterstock photo]

On the Sunday before Election Day, I woke up early to run some errands. As I walked out of the door, I checked my purse to make sure that I had my keys and ID as I always do, just to be safe. To my surprise I could not find my driver’s license. I started to retrace my steps in my mind to remember where I might have misplaced it. Then panic came over me. I remembered Tuesday would be Election Day and Texas, my state of residence, has a voter-ID law.

Most of us have lost our driver’s licenses, keys or something similar at some point in our lives. In most cases it’s simply an annoyance that requires taking time, likely hours, to go back down to the state motor vehicle agency and get another one. However, with the election just around the corner, and disenfranchisement suddenly staring me in the face, what would typically be a trifling moment turned into a sense of urgency and an opportunity for reflection.

In October the Supreme Court upheld Texas’ controversial voter-ID law. Now Texas has one of the strictest voter-ID laws in the nation. Here, we are required to have one of seven forms of acceptable photo ID to vote. A driver’s license counts as one of those acceptable forms, as does a passport and the new Election Identification Certificate. However, my university ID card, which I did find in my wallet, does not count as one of those acceptable forms of ID. A concealed handgun license – unexpired or expired no longer than 60 days – would have been just fine.

This reminded me that the real controversy with voter-ID laws is the way that they erect obstacles that keep us from voting. 

The obstacle in my case was simple. I am a mother of two small children who works full time. To get a replacement license, I would have to take time off work and head down to the driver’s license office on Monday to get a new card to vote on Tuesday. The Texas Election Code states that all employers are required to give employees paid time off to vote in elections. This law does not cover the time you may need to go and get the required documents, however. For those Texans who have to work or who have small children, a seemingly simple requirement becomes a serious impediment.

A few days before the Supreme Court upheld Texas’ voter-ID law, Federal District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos found that the Texas law violates the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. For her, the law is a clear class- and race-based attempt to suppress the black and Latino vote in Texas. Indeed, many have likened these laws to the poll taxes and literacy tests once used to bar African-Americans from voting.

For many, the comparisons to the voter-suppression tactics of the Jim Crow South may seem like hyperbole. Requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID to vote is nothing like impossible literacy tests or making people pay to vote, right? And those laws were explicitly race-based, no? Luckily, I found my passport. But the realization that my passport would count reminded me of the gender, class and race politics behind this whole thing.

Historically, voter suppression has never been quite as explicit as we would like to believe. It has always been about finding ways to make some people’s path to the ballot box impossible, intimidating, annoying or just a bit more difficult. In that case, these laws do exactly what their predecessors did. 

Christen A. Smith teaches in the Departments of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Twitter: @profsassy

Photo: Ballot box/Shutterstock

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