Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos entered the Karnes County Courthouse one morning last week with the usual spring in his step to tell an attentive audience of about 30 local officials and interested parties about the state’s voter ID law, struck down by a federal judge as unduly restrictive and discriminatory.
Any of seven photo IDs will work, he begins, reiterating the parameters of the original law, by way of introducing court-ordered changes.
“Where the change is now is that if someone is unable to obtain one of those seven IDs, that’s OK — they can come in and they need to file a declaration saying that they’ve been impeded or there’s a reasonable impediment as to why they’ve been unable to obtain one of the seven approved IDs,” he says.
Only then should poll workers accept other forms of identification to vote, such as a birth certificate, voter registration card, pay check, utility bill, bank statement or government document, he explains.
“It’s really not that complex,” Cascos says, in a presentation he gives several times a week.
Civil rights lawyers, U.S. Justice Department officials and Texas Democrats, however, say that, instead of making clear how easy it is to vote, Cascos further muddies the waters to discourage turnout, especially among Hispanic voters who are more likely to vote Democratic.
The state’s top election official, Cascos is a Democrat-turned-Republican, but this job demands nonpartisanship, an even-handedness complemented by the kindly countenance he carries with him.
But all that is being put to the test as Cascos finds himself in the thick of one of the most contentious issues in Texas politics, presiding over his office’s campaign to educate Texans between now and Election Day, Nov. 8, about court-ordered changes in the state’s voter ID law.
For both the state’s Republican leadership and the GOP base, that law is viewed as an indispensable and common-sense bulwark against voter fraud, and lawyers from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office will be back in U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’ courtroom in Corpus Christi on Monday resisting efforts by the Justice Department to force further changes in Cascos’ voter ID education campaign.
After the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the Texas voter ID law, enacted in 2011, discriminated against minority voters, Ramos was given the task of establishing acceptable voter ID rules for this November, and to determine whether the Texas law was intentionally discriminatory.
Monday’s hearing comes at the request of the Justice Department, which filed a complaint that Texas officials, notably Cascos and the secretary of state’s VoteTexas.gov website, were continuing to miseducate and confuse Texans about their eligibility to vote.
A plum job
Secretary of state is a plum job, named by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and then serving at the pleasure of the governor for as long as the officeholder likes.
In his case that would be Greg Abbott, who, with great fanfare, announced a week after his election as governor in 2014, that Cascos, then freshly elected to a third term as Cameron County’s county judge, leading an overwhelmingly Democratic and predominantly Hispanic border county, would be his first appointment as governor.
But, for all the legal and political tumult surrounding him, in a recent interview in his office on the first floor of the Capitol, Cascos appeared calm in the eye of the storm.
“What I’ve told some friends is it’s a lot less stressful being secretary of state than it was being county judge,” he said.
Cascos has finished taping radio and TV ads, in English and Spanish, that are now in post-production and will launch across the state the first week in October, as part of $2.5 million education campaign crafted for the state by the public relations firm Burson Marsteller.
And if Judge Ramos rules that their script remains misleading?
“We’re pretty flexible. If the court comes back and says we need to change something, then we will do that,” he said, even if it means redoing the ads, though that would also necessarily delay airing them.
“We will do whatever we need to do,” said Cascos, who had just completed a meeting with a half-dozen Austin Instagrammers, who Burson Marsteller had identified as otherwise apolitical millennial “influencers” with their combined 93,077 followers.
“We’re using any type of venue short of smoke signals to get the message out to everyone as to what the new changes are in terms of voter ID,” Cascos said.
“I think that deep down inside Carlos is still a Democrat,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa said it was he who first convinced Cascos to seek election as a Cameron County commissioner more than a quarter-century ago. They were political allies until Cascos switched parties and defeated Hinojosa for county judge in 2006, amid a scandal that led to Cameron County’s Democratic sheriff being sent to prison for his involvement with Mexican drug traffickers.
“We were really good friends,” Hinojosa recalled of Cascos. “He was actually my CPA up until the day he ran against me. … He is the guy who did all my taxes for years.”
“Without the political pressure from the people that are running the state, you would see Carlos much more open to expanding voter turnout in the state of Texas. I think that he believes that, that he thinks that it is the right thing to do,” Hinojosa said.
“And if he was allowed to do that, given his abilities, he would do a damned good job of getting it done,” Hinojosa said. “He has the potential … to expand voter turnout and not restrict it, but that’s not the agenda of the Republican Party of the state of Texas, of Ken Paxton and Greg Abbott and the people who run the Legislature. I don’t think, no matter how he feels, they would allow him to do what he deep down believes is the right thing to do.”
Cascos said he takes no position on the merits of the voter ID law.
“I’m here to implement the law,” he said. “We do not take a position, one way or the other. We don’t advocate, and we don’t disparage. That’s not my role. My role is to inform voters about how, when, where to vote. And now we have a different caveat in terms of the photo ID requirement.”
Cascos said he got to know Abbott when they were both on the ballot in 2014.
“I introduced him at several events, and I guess he liked my introductions, and we took it from there,” Cascos said.
“I don’t think he appointed me because I was an immigrant or an Hispanic or even a Republican county judge,” Cascos said. “I think that as he listened to me, he liked what I represented. I just happened to be Hispanic. I just happened to be from the border. I think he saw some qualities there that would help the state.”
In addition to being the chief elections officer for the state, the secretary of state is also the lead liaison for Texas border and Mexican affairs, and Cascos, who was born in Mexico 64 years ago, said he has been told that, in his second year on the job, “this is probably the best relationship we’ve had with Mexico in quite some time.”
Has he conferred with the governor on voter ID and his voter education plan?
“No,” Cascos said, “I think we read each other very well. You don’t have to be talking to somebody all the time to know what the right direction is.”
And, he said, “So far so good. He hasn’t called me in for anything, so I guess we’re OK.”
Voter ID law
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who studied the voter ID law and its impact in Texas, said it incurred the wrath of the federal court because it overreached.
“They increased the number of people adversely affected by unnecessarily restricting possible IDs, like student IDs, by not allowing voters to use expired ID’s (under the new rules now in effect, an expired ID can be used for four years after it lapses), and by really, pretty much making it logistically impossible for more people to get the EIC (Election Identification Certificate that could be used as an ID),” Jones said. “By pushing the envelope, Texas weakened their own case.”
In the 2014 election in Texas, Jones found that the law “depressed turnout by confusing voters into thinking they didn’t have one of the seven forms of ID when they did. “
Jones said the impact of those voters not showing up at the polls might have proved decisive in the majority Hispanic 23rd Congressional District where Democrat Pete Gallego is seeking to reclaim the seat from Republican Will Hurd, who in 2014 beat Gallego, then a freshman congressman, by 2,200 votes.
“If those individuals had voted, it is very possible that Pete Gallego would have won,” Jones said. “It is arguable that it was the one federal election nationwide where voter ID could have made the difference between who won and who lost.”
Of the secretary of state’s latest education campaign on voter ID, Jones said, “It still starts off hard.”
“It still is pitched as you have to have an ID, unless you don’t have an ID, and if you don’t have an ID and have a good excuse, and have one of these other pieces of ID and you sign an affidavit, then you can vote, as opposed to simply saying, ‘If you have any of these (alternative IDs) you can vote.’”
And, Jones said, “$2.5 million in a state of 27 million people? If you’re imagining trying to run as a statewide political candidate with a budget of $2.5 million, you wouldn’t reach all that many people.”
While polls show that the idea that voters should have to show an ID is broadly popular, the particulars of the Texas law, and the question of how much of a threat voter fraud poses, is increasingly viewed through a partisan lens. Democratic partisans tend to think that Republicans are seeing things, and that they cry fraud as a pretext to suppress voting by folks who are more likely to vote Democratic. Republican partisans tend to think Democrats are turning a blind eye to fraud out of political self-interest.
And Cascos’ take?
“That’s for somebody else to decide. That’s for the A.G. and law enforcement agencies to decide,” Cascos said. “I can tell you that I believe every vote is sacred, every vote is important, every vote means something.”
And, said Cascos, who won his first re-election as county judge by 69 votes in 2010, “for someone to say that there’s not any (fraud), I have seen it first hand, where a friend of mine calls, `Hey, I found out my grandfather’s been voting for the five or six years, but he passed away in 2003.’”
“So there is some of it. How much of it, no one really knows,” he said. “I don’t know that the number is important, but every vote is sacred” and every fraudulent vote “canceled out somebody’s good vote.”
But, as Cascos told the folks in Karnes County, the way the voter ID law will be applied this fall, if somebody shows up with one of the new alternative documents and signs the affidavit, that’s it.
“If you’re thinking, if it looks suspicious can I ask? No, you really can’t challenge it,” Cascos said.
‘Somebody you could trust’
Cascos immigrated to Texas as a small child.
“I was 4 or 5 years old when I came to Brownsville. I don’t remember when I started speaking English – I’m still practicing as we speak today,” said Cascos, whose English bears no trace of a Spanish accent.
“I became a naturalized citizen when I was 12, 13,” Cascos said.
“My mom never spoke English, up until the time she passed away a few years ago, she just chose not to do so,” he said. “She just didn’t want to. She was a Mexican at heart. My dad did learn English. He was from Mexico City and his English wasn’t very good, but it was understandable.”
“My mother became a citizen to vote for two people, when I ran for county commissioner the first time” in 1990, Cascos said. “She wanted to vote for Ann Richards, and she wanted to vote for me. I was a Democrat then.”
But, he said of his mother, “she was never a la palanca voter,” referring to the Spanish term for “the lever” voters used to pull to cast a straight-ticket ballot.
Cascos said he switched parties in 2006 because, “I just wasn’t comfortable with the local Democratic Party anymore, at least in Cameron. It was kind of a gutsy move.”
After barely winning a second term in 2010, he said, “In 2014 I got my margin back.”
“I was a county commissioner for 12 years and county judge for eight years, two months, five days,” he said.
“Carlos was one of the very, very few able to crack the code, to crack la palanca,” said Morgan Cisneros Graham, the Republican Party chair in Cameron County, who said it was Cascos who inspired her to political activism.
“He’s the antithesis of the corruption we faced down here,” she said.
Tony Knopp, a University of Texas-Brownsville history professor emeritus, said Cascos proved honest, capable and popular.
“People locally felt that he was somebody you could trust. You didn’t necessarily have to agree with his position, but he was sincere and he was kind of a post-partisan elected official,” Knopp said. “He wasn’t a strident Republican. He would work with people from both parties.”
For voters in the Rio Grande Valley, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a UT-Brownsville government professor, Cascos was a good mix, both familiar — one of them — and aspirational — what they wanted to be.
“He is the person that Mexican-Americans in the Rio Grande Valley would want to look like and sound like, more like a Texan than a Mexican,” said Correa-Cabrera, who is from Mexico City. “They want to be more assimilated.”
Does Cascos feel any special obligation to improve the woeful voting numbers for Hispanics?
“I don’t like to quantify it like that,” he said. “I can tell you that voter participation in Texas is low regardless of the demographics. The unfortunate thing is, what I’ve heard, that the Hispanic population is the lowest in terms of voter turnout.”
But, he continued, “We don’t all think alike. We don’t all look alike.”
“I believe in reaching out to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, reaching out to everyone equally,” he said.
“I take it very seriously that every Texan that has the right to vote, that we provide whatever information is necessary to cast a ballot Election Day,” he said.
Cascos, who is traveling far and wide for the voter education campaign, came to Karnes County — population 15,000, about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio — at the invitation of Suzy Young, the county’s election administrator, who had heard Cascos in Austin say, “There’s no community too small that I will not go to.”
As he completed his presentation in the courthouse, Cascos recalled being asked recently of the voter ID imbroglio: “Why did you let this happen?”
“I had nothing to do with it,” Cascos said he answered. When he took office, he said, he followed the law as the Legislature wrote it. And when the court rules, “I’ll do what I need to do now and do it to the best of my ability.”