AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas has enforced its Voter ID law for the first time statewide, but there isn’t enough data yet to claim the law was either harmless or an affront to voters’ rights.
There were no major problems reported at polling stations during early voting or on Election Day last week. But there were anecdotal reports of people having trouble voting even with one of the seven forms of government-issued photo IDs allowed under the law. For instance one election judge didn’t know that a U.S. passport was an acceptable form of ID until a supervisor intervened.
Supporters of the law claim that the turnout proved the law was not impeding voters. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott said opponents of the voter ID law had “run out of claims” about hardships.
“I haven’t ever seen anything that was overhyped as much as some partisan efforts to overhype concerns about this, when in reality, there has been no problems whatsoever,” Abbott said last week.
Texas Secretary of State John Steen said the attention surrounding the rollout of the ID law might even have driven more voters to the polls.
However, there is little evidence for either claim.
Out of 13.4 million registered voters, only 1.1 million cast ballots in the 2013 election. That’s about 8.5 percent of the electorate and certainly a big jump from 2011 when only 5.4 percent of voters showed up. But 2011 was not a typical year and had extremely low turnout.
In 2009, about 1 million people cast ballots, representing 8.1 percent of the electorate. So 2013 was roughly the same as 2009, when there was no Voter ID law. This year’s election also had major statewide initiatives on the ballot, an Astrodome referendum in Harris County and a Houston mayoral race that drove more voters to the polls.
There is no evidence to suggest Voter ID boosted turnout, but there is equally no evidence that Voter ID suppressed turnout.
The Associated Press analyzed data obtained under an open records request and determined that 5.46 percent of Texas registered voters did not have a photo ID on file with the Department of Public Safety. That data varied considerably from county to county, with counties that had a high percentage of minorities or a high poverty rate having a higher proportion of registered voters without a matching DPS ID card.
During the 2013 election, though, there was no clear correlation between voter turnout and the percentage of voters without a corresponding ID card at the county level.
Of the 22 Texas counties with more than 100,000 residents, 10 counties had a higher than average proportion of voters without a matching DPS ID card. But voter turnout was lower in only two of those counties when compared to 2009. Turnout was higher in the other eight.
The Texas secretary of state’s office, responsible for tallying statewide votes, also reported only 2,354 provisional ballots, an indicator of the number of people who arrived at the polls without an authorized ID. That’s only 0.2 percent of the voters who showed up.
These statistics, though, don’t necessarily mean the Voter ID law did not discourage some voters from going to the polls at all. Only the most committed voter turns out for referendums on constitutional amendments, and drawing a conclusion based on 8.5 percent of voters at the county level would be statistically unsound.
Nevertheless, experts will pore over precinct-level voter data to look for evidence the law disproportionately impacted minorities, which would be grounds for a federal judge to overturn it as unconstitutional.
The Justice Department, civil rights groups and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey have filed a federal lawsuit to get the law thrown out and the judge is trying to set a schedule this week. Veasey’s attorneys want a trial before the general election in November 2014, but his allies want one afterward so they can use voter data from that election to bolster their case.
The judge has not decided a course of action, while Abbott has asked for the case to be thrown out.
In the meantime, neither side should be rushing to conclusions about the law based on the data so far.
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Chris Tomlinson is the AP’s supervisory correspondent in Austin responsible for state government and political reporting.