WASHINGTON -- A number of voters in Texas reported problems casting their ballots on Election Day, with many of the issues stemming from a restrictive new voter ID law that went into effect for the first time this election cycle. Texas is one of several states where residents are reporting problems with voting, a consequence of Congress' failure to replace a key provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last year.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that prevented certain states with a history of discrimination from enacting changes to their voting process without permission from the federal government or a panel of judges.
Following that decision, voting rights advocates pushed for Congress to pass legislation preventing states from making potentially discriminatory changes to election laws that could prevent citizens from casting their votes. The initiative even gained limited Republican support. But Congress failed to act.
The ramifications of congressional inaction are now being felt not only by Texas voters, but by residents of a number of other states as well. In Georgia, voters who believed they were registered reported being turned away because officials failed to process a number of voter registration forms that were submitted by an outside group. In North Carolina, a law in effect for the first time this year bans people from voting unless they show up at a specific precinct. Many voters in the state have reported time-consuming delays because they were not allowed to cast a ballot when they showed up at the wrong polling location.
Voting problems seemed especially prolific in Texas, where the new voter ID law has effectively disenfranchised many voters, especially college students, elderly voters, new residents of the state and poor people. Voters who had valid photo identification issued by other states were surprised to learn their ID wasn't valid under the Texas law, which a federal judge last month called a “unconstitutional poll tax." The law was, in fact, ruled unconstitutional by a federal court before the Supreme Court allowed it to go forward, at least for the 2014 election, evidently because the majority of the court believed it was too late to revert back to the previous voter ID law.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is challenging the Texas law in a lawsuit. One of the plaintiffs is a student named Imani Clark, who was unable to vote in this election because she has an out-of-state driver’s license. And she's not alone.
Kelsey McElduff, 22, recently moved to Texas to earn a master’s degree in transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She registered to vote almost as soon as she arrived, because she was interested in propositions on commuter rail and education that were appearing on the ballot. But McElduff discovered she wasn’t able to vote with her out-of-state license. Fortunately, she had a passport and was able to bring it back in time to vote.
“I can't help but feel as though my rights to vote in the state I'm living in are being oppressed based on where I came from,” McElduff told The Huffington Post, adding that she has other friends from out of state who didn’t register to vote because they thought the new law required them to have a Texas driver’s license.
Christina Sanders, state director at the Texas League of Young Voters Education Fund, told HuffPost that her group saw a “concerning” number of students at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in Prairie View, Texas, turned away because the only identification they had were student IDs or out-of-state driver’s licenses, both of which are not accepted under Texas’s new law.
Uba Okereke, who recently attended the Frank Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, said that his girlfriend went to vote in Dallas this morning with four other friends, but she was the only one who had adequate ID and was able to do so. “I was like, man, that’s crazy,” he said, adding that “voter ID laws in Texas and other southern states are truly discriminatory.”
"Voter ID is definitely emerging as a big problem this year," said Wendy Weiser, who heads the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Weiser worked on Tuesday with the Election Protection coalition, a group of NGOs working on voting rights issues. She said that voter registration problems have been "widespread" this year, with many voters reporting that they had been "purged" from the voter rolls in states like Georgia.
The Election Protection coalition had received over 18,000 phone calls as of Tuesday afternoon, though officials noted that many of these calls were from voters simply seeking information on their polling location or asking other questions. Still, Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a member of the coalition, believed that the high volume of calls was representative of deeper problems.
"This isn't what people call 'voting irregularities.' These are large-scale, systemic problems," she said.
With Republicans expected to gain seats in the House and possibly take control of the Senate, it isn't clear that voting rights reform will be high on the agenda.
"While in the ideal world, Congress would be responsive to actual problems, we have seen a lot of congressional dysfunction lately," Weiser said. "We can point to a strong need. Whether that strong need leads to congressional action also depends on who wins today."
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