Government by the people, for the people. That’s kind of the foundation of this whole democracy thing, isn’t it? The four or five of us who are able to bother with it shuffle on over to the polls every couple of years to elect some folks who are at least supposed to try not to burn this whole place down. Even in Texas, we at least deserve the expectation, however naive, that our elected officials aren’t actively trying to make things worse, right?
And yet, three high-profile court cases filed against Texas in the last few years have me wondering. There’s our voter ID law, which then-Governor Rick Perry signed in 2011 after years of partisan wrangling. In August, a panel of judges of the notoriously conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law, which requires voters to present certain kinds of photo identification with a name that corresponds to their voter registration, has a “discriminatory effect,” particularly against non-white voters, and violates parts of the 50-year-old Voting Rights Act.
The mostly Republican lawmakers who backed voter ID said it was necessary to prevent voter fraud. But what voter fraud? In 2013, the Dallas Morning News surveyed nine years of voting irregularity cases pursued by the Texas Attorney General’s Office and found a grand total of four fraud cases that the law might have prevented. A 2012 Arizona State University project looking into voter fraud nationally concluded that ID-related voter fraud is “virtually non-existent.”
Voter ID is a solution in search of a problem.
Then there’s Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which Perry signed in 2013. It places strict requirements on the way abortion-providing doctors and abortion clinics can operate, ostensibly to improve the “health and safety” of Texans who get abortions. Two federal cases against the law have wound their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in none of the proceedings so far has the state been able to show that abortion is a dangerous medical procedure in need of regulation.
To the contrary, mainstream medical research has shown that abortion is about as safe as a colonoscopy. According to the state health department’s own data — collected for the year 2013, before the law went into effect — there were zero deaths resulting from legal abortion, and less than 1 percent of more than 63,000 induced pregnancy terminations resulted in any complications.
The Texas abortion law is a solution in search of a problem.
And now, families in South Texas have filed a federal suit against the Department of State Health Services and its Vital Statistics Unit, alleging that undocumented parents are being denied access to their American-born kids’ birth certificates. The state only accepts certain documents as proof of identification, most of which aren’t available to people without legal residency in the United States, which means Americans — babies and toddlers though they may be — can’t get the most basic documentation of their citizenship. The state of Texas has countered, in court documents filed this summer, that its ID requirements for vital records are necessary to prevent noncitizens from fraudulently obtaining documents for nefarious purposes. But the state has not been able to produce any evidence that this kind of fraud occurs with any regularity, or even at all.
What we appear to have here is another solution in search of a problem.
Notably, all three of these “solutions” burden the least privileged Texans, particularly women of color. All three place significant barriers to accessing some of the most fundamental rights enjoyed by American citizens: voting, personal privacy and citizenship itself.
To me, it looks as though the problem the state has is with some Texans. Texans who aren’t wealthy white folks, or who aren’t likely to be turning up to vote in the next Republican primary. Texans whose very existence challenges the long institutional rule of the good ol’ boys’ club, who make government-by-handshake increasingly difficult to pull off. But if you can keep ’em out of the voting booth, struggling to raise families and tied up with unnecessary bureaucratic hassles, you probably can go a fair way toward staving off inevitable change.
When taken together with Texas’ already abysmally low voter turnout rates, these three cases put in stark relief the dismal, and perhaps deliberately engineered, state of Lone Star democracy: Government by some people, for the people who look like them.