WASHINGTON, October 25, 2013—Several reports this week stated that the new Texas voter ID law, set to go in effect on November 5, could disenfranchise as much as one third of female voters as well as a larger portion of transgender voters.
The law was previously struck down as discriminatory by a federal court in 2012 under the Voting Rights Act, but placed back on the books after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated section 4 of the Act this summer.
With early voting already underway in Texas, state election officials say fears of disenfranchisement are unfounded.
The new Texas law requires voters present one of seven valid forms of photo ID. People without a valid ID can apply for an Election Identification Certificate, issued free of charge by the Texas department of Public Safety (DPS).
When voting, the name on the photo ID must match the name as it appears in the official list of registered voters. If the names do not match, but are “substantially similar,” individuals can vote as long as they sign an affidavit certifying that they are the same person.
If the names are not “substantially similar,” voters can still cast a provisional ballot. They then have six days to provide the county voter registrar with valid ID or proof of identity.
Women, transgender voters not turned away at the polls
Many fear that the new law will disproportionately affect women, who often change their name when they marry and change it back when they divorce; and the transgender community, who face unique challenges when they try to obtain identification.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, only 66 percent of women have access to a valid document with their current legal name. Because men almost always retain their birth name throughout marital changes, they are not impacted by the law. Women, however, change their names in almost 90 percent of marriages and divorces, according to Prospect.org.
The law may also place a voting barrier for the transgender community, where as many as 41 percent of individuals have not updated their driver’s license, 74 percent do not possess an updated passport, and 27 percent have no identity documents reflecting their current gender, according to a report by the Williams Institute.
State voting officials Tuesday in the Texas Tribune stated that concerns of disenfranchisement are unwarranted, as protocols are in place for cases where a person’s photo ID does not match the name on voter registration lists.
“Poll workers are encouraged to look at the entirety of the ID,” Alicia Pierce, spokeswoman for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, told Communities in a telephone interview. “In most cases, if the names are similar but not identical, a voter can sign an affidavit certifying they are the same person.”
VoteTexa.gov defines “substantially similar” where the name on the ID or list is a customary variation (like Bill for William); there is a middle name, initial or former name that is not on the ID or the list; or one of the names, initials or former names occupies a different field.
The definition of “substantially similar” according to Pierce, will apply to a situation where a person’s last name is different from the one that appears on voter lists—as is the case for many newly divorced or married women—and there is additional matching information such as residential address or date of birth. Poll workers are also encouraged to examine the photo in the ID.
In the case where the name is not “substantially similar” and there is no additional matching information, the voter can cast a provisional ballot and has six days to present proper identification to the county voter registrar, or the vote will not be counted.
“This is really a last line of defense,” Pierce said to Communities. “We are four days into early voting and this has not come up as a major issue.”
Sondra Haltom, president of Empower the Vote Texas, agrees that while it is true that “women at the polls are facing a bigger hassle than men because on average women are more likely to have a name matching issue, no one is being asked to present marriage licenses or birth certificates or anything like that at the polls as some stories suggest.”
The real disenfranchisement is access barriers to “free” photo IDs
The group most impacted by the new law is those without identification who are attempting to obtain the free Election Identification Certificate in order to vote.
According to Ari Berman at The Nation, there are 600,000 to 800,000 registered voters in Texas who do not have the required ID, and therefore must apply for the Election Identification Certificate.
While the Election Identification Certificate is free, at a minimum it requires an original or certified copy of a birth certificate—which costs $22 to obtain—and originals or certified copies of a marriage license, divorce decree or court order to prove name change.
To date, only 50 individuals have successfully obtained the ID, MSNBC reports. This is less than a small fraction of one percent of those who need the ID to cast a ballot.
Within this group without proper identification, women and transgender individuals will be disproportionately affected. Because they are more likely to have name changes than men, they will need to produce not only a birth certificate, but other legal documents to prove the name change and obtain the necessary ID to vote.
“There are other women, particularly elderly married women, who do not have a valid form of id who are trying to get the free Election Identification Certificate provided by DPS who are running into roadblocks because they don’t have the required documentation,” said Haltom to Communities. “These are the women being told they need legal proof of their name change, which they don’t have, in addition to other documents to verify their citizenship and identity to get the free id. This is where the bigger problem is.”
Dissuasion rather than prohibition?
The hurdles for women and transgender individuals to vote may dissuade them from even approaching the ballot box. Even if they may be allowed to vote because the names on IDs and voter registration are similar, many may worry about discrepancies and decide not to chance being turned away.
Women and transgender individuals with valid photo ID whose names do not exactly match their voter registration card—34% of all women according to the Brennan Center—will take longer than men to vote, will be forced to sign an affidavit or to vote provisionally, creating at least psychological barriers to voting.
Women and transgender individuals who do not have valid photo ID will face serious difficulties in obtaining an Election Identification Certificate before November 5, which will allow them to vote. Difficulties include locating, requesting, and purchasing certified copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other documents. The price, time and hassle, according to critics, are likely to discourage many women who are eligible to vote.
Even more eligible transgender individuals are likely to be dissuaded by fears of being turned away at the polls because their gender does not match their ID or by the lengthy and complicated 12-step process for a legal name change in Texas.
Even if people are technically allowed to vote, critics fear that they simply won’t because they think that they cannot.
“As is often the case, this law may prove more successful at keeping voters from the polls by making them think they won’t be able to vote, rather than them actually being excluded by the rule,” writes Jos Truit in Feministing.com
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