On November 4, millions of Americans will take to the polls for midterm elections. They will not be joined by hundreds of thousands of voters who have been disenfranchised by restrictive polling requirements. Many states have introduced legislation that makes voting more difficult for poor and minority citizens, but in Texas the situation is perhaps most restrictive, most corrupt and most dire.
In 2011, the Texas legislature passed a controversial voter ID law, SB14, which significantly hindered poll access for as many as 600,000 of the state’s residents by requiring a photo ID to be presented at the time of voting. It was held up in a legal quagmire until 2013, when the Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, eliminating the need for federal approval of states’ voting requirements. After the ruling, Attorney General Greg Abbott proudly announced SB14 would immediately take effect. Nonetheless, some legal back-and-forth complicated the status of the law in recent weeks – a Texas district judge ruled the bill unconstitutional and insisted it not govern the upcoming election but, weeks later, in the dead of night on October 18, the Supreme Court quietly overrode that decision and allowed SB14 to stand. The decision carries echoes of the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court ordered a stop to the Florida recount and effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush. It’s the stuff of conspiracy fiction.
Amid all this controversy, Texas voters are choosing a new governor. One of the candidates is the very man who was so instrumental in ensuring the success of SB14, Greg Abbott. Not only is Abbott the Republican gubernatorial candidate, he lead the charge on both SB14 and the state’s equally controversially gerrymandering efforts, which Abbott boasted would redraw the state’s district lines to benefit Republicans. With such brazen self-serving corruption, it might be a wonder there haven’t been arrests made – except for the fact that, as Attorney General, Abbott is also the state’s leading law enforcement figure.
His opponent, State Senator Wendy Davis, came to national attention in the summer of 2013 for filibustering and successfully stalling the Texas GOP’s barbaric anti-abortion measure. The law passed in a later session and is significantly restricting Texans’ access to reproductive healthcare already, but when Davis filibustered she stood in solidarity with hundreds of protestors even as Austin police brutalized and busted them up outside the Capital. It’s rare to see a politician actually stand by the courage of her convictions, and regardless of anything else you might say of Wendy Davis, her actions broke the political mold. At the very least, she’s easily distinguished from Greg Abbott, a smarmy career politician who is so much more of the same you might expect a little green alien to unzip Rick Perry and step inside him during the transfer of power.
As a means of social change, voting is of debatable effectiveness. Far more meaningful are demonstrations, boycotts, marches, strikes and teach-ins, which can address the system itself instead of just replacing the people in charge of it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be seriously concerned when the right to vote is taken away, particularly in Texas where the state’s huge population and economic presence affords the governor’s office national influence. There’s a famous saying that is often (and probably incorrectly, though the sentiment is not far off) attributed to the early 20th century radical Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Well, they’re working toward that.
In-person voter fraud is a statistically meaningless factor in US elections, and it’s the only kind of fraud SB14 addresses. When fraud of any kind is found out, many of the most high-profile cases actually involve Republican operatives. Clearly, voter fraud is just a boogeyman to cover an ulterior agenda. Texas requiring a valid photo ID has nothing to do with ensuring a fair election and everything to do with the GOP establishment making it as difficult as possible for certain, traditionally Democratic citizens to vote – it’s transparent discrimination.
Unfortunately, citizens are now in the position of just about having to commit voter fraud to cast what should be a legal vote. Take the case of Eric Kennie, a lifelong Austinite who, because of his poverty and distance from the city center, has been unable to obtain a legitimate form of ID to vote within the rules of SB14. Low-income minority voters like Kennie are the obvious targets of SB14. To complicate matters further, because of a bureaucratic error, the name given on Kennie’s birth certificate is not the name he’s used all his life. As the Guardian notes, “He could swallow his pride and take up the identity given on his birth certificate… He doesn’t want to do that – he said it would make his deceased father ‘turn in his grave’. It would also be profoundly ironic: he would in effect be impersonating someone else in order to get around a law ostensibly designed to root out impersonation at the polls.”
Under SB14, voter fraud is practically peaceful protesting. Any instance of breaking the restrictive voter ID law to help a legitimately disenfranchised voter should be applauded. We should put some faith in the ability of election workers to determine whether a person is being honest. If presenting a utility bill was satisfactory to vote last year, it certainly ought to be good enough this year. It’d be great if election workers continued to accept these as ID whenever their judgment permits them to. One key fact to help inform them might be that the working poor, who are easy to identify, are not the ones committing voter fraud – they have neither the time, inclination or sinister nature for it.
Many states have laws against political speech in an election zone, and these are put in place for good reason – you don’t want anyone intimidating people to vote a certain way. But it’d be nice to see community organizers standing outside polling stations with simple signs reading, “I wish I could vote.” At least then, citizens like Eric Kennie would be represented. Frankly, the most profound statement would be a statewide boycott of Texas elections, but that isn’t likely to happen. Still, citizens cannot work within the system for change while being aggressively locked out of it.
Greg Abbott openly declared his pride at Texas Republicans’ redrawing districts to favor the GOP – can there be any question as to his true motivation with SB14? For the most powerful officials in one of the nation’s biggest states to be so brazen about setting up an election in their favor is an enormous scandal that hasn’t received the scrutiny it deserves. Abbott may not need SB14 to win, but it will nonetheless taint his victory if he is elected, and there are far more races than the gubernatorial one to worry about. Everything has been rigged in the GOP’s favor, much of it by Abbott, and hundreds of thousands of legal voters won’t have any say. Kudos to anyone who helps voters like Eric Kennie work around this cynical ploy and shame on Greg Abbott and the GOP for concocting it. And if, indeed, it was all done within the accepted parameters of the law, then clearly, just voting is not a strong enough solution.