New Voter ID Lawsuit Argues for Poor Voters’ Rights

by Published on
"Vote here" sign
Patrick Michels
...if you can afford it.

Election Day last week brought plenty of complaints at the polls about Texas’ new voter ID law, but it also brought one major complaint in Corpus Christi federal court, where nine voters joined La Unión Del Pueblo Entero in suing the state over its tough new voting requirements.

The plaintiffs are long-time voters from South Texas who lack the photo ID now required to vote in Texas since the 2011 law took effect. “The State knew or should have known,” the suit says, “that Hispanic and African-American Texans disproportionately lack the forms of photo ID required by SB 14.” (Read the full complaint below.)

There are, of course, many other legal challenges to Texas’ voter ID law, including from the U.S. Department of Justice, groups like MALC and NAACP, the Texas League of Young Voters and a group led by Congressman Marc Veasey. As recently as September, the Texas Association of Hispanic County Judges and County Commissioners joined in those suits, and True the Vote sought to join the state in defending the law.

The new complaint is focused specifically on the burden the law places on poor, rural voters, according to David Hall, executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing the new plaintiffs.

“What we were trying to do is fill in a niche that didn’t seem to be addressed much by the Justice Department suit or the other plaintiffs,” he told the Observer. “Most of our clients don’t have a handy certified copy of a birth certificate, so they’re going to be paying some money.”

That cost varies from $22—for the copy of a birth certificate you’d need in order to get a new state ID—to $345 for a copy of citizenship papers, according to the complaint. For residents of rural Willacy, Goliad or Karnes counties, getting that paperwork together can mean long, costly trips to the closest DPS office.

These are all familiar concerns to critics of the voter ID law—often raised by Democrats during the Legislature’s debate over the law, and dismissed by Republicans as abstract worries. Each of the nine plaintiffs in this suit demonstrate the very real problems Texas’ voter ID law created.

Eulalio Mendez, Jr., is an 82-year-old man living in Willacy County whose driver’s license expired in June 2012, and who has no way to travel to the DPS office in Harlingen that issues ID cards. Roxsanne Hernandez, in the Goliad County town of Berclair, had her state ID card stolen last year and doesn’t have a copy of her birth certificate. Estela Garcia Espinoza is a 69-year-old Raymondville woman who no longer drives, and whose license expired four years ago. She was born on a Starr County ranch in 1944 and her birth was never officially registered.

All the plaintiffs had voted regularly before this year, according to the complaint, and have incomes well below the poverty line.

They’re joined in the suit by La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, a group founded by Cesar Chavez, which advocates for immigrants and poor people in South Texas. Juanita Valdez-Cox, the group’s executive director, told the Observer that she has personal reasons for joining in the suit. She compared the new law to the poll tax her own father had to pay to vote until 1966, and said her 92-year-old mother lacks the ID now required to vote in person because her state ID is expired. Local officials suggested she vote by mail instead, but Valdez-Cox wasn’t satisfied with that solution. “People make the choice, not the state, how they want to vote,” she said.

Valdez-Cox said she was frustrated by a news story in which the local elections administrator said the voter ID rollout went smoothly this year, and that nobody had been turned away at the polls. (That was a common report across the state.)

“She only speaks for the ones that showed up to vote,” Valdez-Cox said. “She doesn’t know how many stayed home because they already knew they didn’t have the required ID, they were already discouraged to show up. Those are the ones that we are concerned about.”

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • TxTea

    Seniors 65+ can vote by mail without a photo ID – and they won’t even have to drive to the polls! – so none of them are prevented from voting by Voter ID.
    EVERY voter is required by federal law to provide an ID number when they register, even if just the last 4 digits of their Social Security number (which requires documentation to get). Presuming some have lost their documentation, the state waives the $22 fee for a birth certificate copy if it’s needed for Voter ID, which voters can also get for free.
    DPS has mobile ID units which have already visited Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, and I’m sure they’d be happy to come to Willacy as well. Maybe La Union could spend some of its time and money helping these voters get an ID.

    • Monica Guzmán

      You just don’t get it, do you … Yes, 65+ can submit a BBM (ballot by mail), but for many it’s a matter of tradition and pride, to physically go to the polls to vote .. and they won’t have it any other way. It’s their choice – not the state’s and certainly not yours.

      Plus, those 65+ don’t necessarily have adequate transportation to get to/from a Vital Stats office. As for ordering online … don’t assume all seniors have digital access/digital literacy.

      Where exactly does it state $22 fee waived? I’ve checked multiple websites, not one mentions fee waiver (when BC ordered for purpose of voter registration):

      http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/vs/reqproc/Ordering-Birth-Certificates-by-Mail/

      https://txapps.texas.gov/tolapp/ovra/SelectRequestType.htm

      http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/vs/reqproc/faq/txonline.shtm#How do I pay for my order?

      I even checked DPS website, since it is the issuing agency of Election Identification Certificates (EIC) … I know those are FREE of charge, their website states nothing about being free, nor does it state BC fee waived.

      Now, the Texas Secretary of State (http://www.votetexas.gov/) does mention no charge for EICs, but again … nothing about waiving fee for birth certificate. ["Qualified voters without an approved photo ID may obtain a free Election Identification Card from DPS."]

      • TxTea

        Monica, tradition and pride are admirable, but they are not covered by the Voting Rights Act and are not grounds for a lawsuit.
        Changing one’s preferred method of voting simply does not constitute “disenfranchisement” – whether it’s changing from paper ballots to electronic voting machines, or from neighborhood polls to countywide polling locations, or from in-person to mail ballots.

        Here’s the link regarding DSHS-Vital Statistics Unit waiving the fee for birth certificates issued for the purposes of applying for a free EIC:
        http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/vs/field/Birth-Certificate-for-Election-Identification/
        I hope that being plaintiffs in a lawsuit won’t prevent these voters from exercising their right to vote.

  • Indiana Pearl

    Poll tax . . . Completely unconstitutional.