After confusion over whether several hundred Texans voted improperly in the November election, local election officials say that the ballots in question likely were cast by eligible voters who got caught up in the chaotic scramble to implement a court order loosening the state’s strict voter identification law.
The law, adopted in 2011 by the GOP-controlled Legislature and mired in a years-long court battle, requires voters to show one of seven forms of government-issued photo ID. After federal courts found the law to be discriminatory, a judge in August ordered Texas officials to soften its requirements for the Nov. 8 election by allowing registered voters without one of the required photo IDs to cast ballots if they signed affidavits swearing that they had a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining ID and showed other documentation, such as a birth certificate, utility bill, bank statement or government pay stub.
Officials have said the new rules were implemented unevenly across the state, and The Associated Press reported that 500 people who signed the affidavits indicated on the forms that they had photo ID but were declining to show it. Reasons varied, with some withholding their IDs as a protest of the law, some saying they forgot their IDs and others refusing to show an ID without explanation.
The finding led Stephen Vickers, Tarrant County’s chief deputy elections administrator, to say he would forward those affidavits to prosecutors, and it was used as ammunition by Republicans who have argued, without evidence, that voter fraud is widespread. Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted in response, “We’ll continue our fight to stop cheating at ballot box.”
But Vickers and other elections officials say the issue wasn’t voter fraud but mass confusion over the voter ID requirements.
“That’s really not fraud. That’s just them breaking a rule. They’re still an eligible voter, and they can still vote without that ID,” said Vickers, who said his office is still reviewing the affidavits and will forward them to prosecutors if warranted. “I don’t see voter fraud being rampant. I think most of this is confusion on the voters’ part and our part as far as what is required, and that’s a training issue we need to get at.”
The affidavits in question were among more than 16,400 signed by Texas voters in the Nov. 8 election, including 2,300 voters in Travis County. Those voters would have been unable to cast ballots if the state’s voter ID law were in full effect.
Although the August court order spurred mass confusion in the runup to the November election, it also created a unique case study for examining voter ID laws, the impact of which are often difficult to measure because it is impossible to know how many people would have voted in a given election if there had been less restrictive ID requirements.
Despite the court order, civil rights groups said they received hundreds of reports from across the state of local election judges incorrectly applying the modified ID guidelines, meaning more people might have been turned away at the ballot box and the number of signed affidavits likely represents the minimum tally of Texans who would have been or were disenfranchised by the law.
Those who voted by signing the affidavits despite indicating they had photo ID should instead have been directed to vote by provisional ballot, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. In that process, officials hold the provisional ballots separate, and voters have six days after the election to produce valid ID, allowing their votes to be counted.
DeBeauvoir said her office wasn’t reviewing the affidavits for possible perjury prosecutions because any errors in them were likely caused by the court order being carried out “with little time and virtually no training.”
“There are several things going on here, and they’re all small,” she said. “I could see how the voting provisions would be a little confusing. I see that just as a paperwork thing.”
Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who told the AP he might forward flawed affidavits to prosecutors, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Jennifer Anderson, the Hays County elections administrator, said her office isn’t taking any action on the affidavits at this time. Bastrop County’s administrator, Bridgette Escobedo, said her office found no affidavits in which people indicated they had an ID.
Jacque Callanen, Bexar County’s election administrator, declined to comment except to say her office would only take action on the affidavits if directed to do so by the Texas secretary of state’s office.
Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, said in a statement that his office “is not legally authorized to conduct investigations, so any investigation into allegations of illegal voting would have to be initiated either in the Attorney General’s office, or by the various County DAs where the alleged violations occurred.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office declined to comment on whether it is investigating the affidavits.
New voter ID bill
Democrats and voting rights groups have argued that the voter ID law, authored by former state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, discriminates against groups that are less likely to have photo ID and are more likely to vote Democratic, including students and racial minorities.
Republicans have argued that the law is necessary to ensure the integrity of the vote. Studies on voter fraud, however, have shown that it isn’t widespread and that cases involving the type of voter fraud that photo ID laws can prevent — in-person impersonation of another voter — are exceedingly rare.
In July, a federal appeals court sided with those who said the law had discriminatory effects, and a month later U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ordered the state to temporarily soften the ID requirements for the Nov. 8 election.
On Wednesday, Paxton asked a federal judge to delay an upcoming court hearing on the case until summer as lawmakers consider a replacement law.
Senate Bill 5, by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would make the option of signing the court-ordered “reasonable impediment” forms permanent and create a criminal penalty for those who sign the forms but have a valid photo ID.