A cold wind working its way through Downtown’s towers and caverns could not dissuade David Watkins from doing everything possible to make sure his young college-age poll watchers were in place at various precincts around town before Election Day. “We have to make sure that when people go to vote, they can vote successfully,” he says, intensely looking at lists of potential candidates for Election Day assignments. “Republicans are trying to prevent people from voting, so it’s important that everyone go to the polls and make their voices heard.”
Watkins volunteers with a local branch of the League of Young Voters Education Fund, a group working in local colleges to register new voters and educating about the voting process. The group increased its efforts in the Houston area immediately prior to Tuesday’s elections.
Just one of many groups both locally and nationally, the LYVEF maintains that disenfranchisement of voters is part of a long-standing pattern of voter suppression and is ongoing. Their website and the literature they distribute warn of “Young people who have been shut out of the political process,” and encourages convicted felons to vote. Their logo is the Statue of Liberty – carrying a menacing baseball bat.
Watkins blames the increased reports of voter suppression on the SB14 legislation enacted by Texas’ 82nd Legislature, better known as the “Voter ID Bill.” The legislation, authored by various State Senators, including Joan Huffman (TXSD 17), and signed by Governor Rick Perry, was intended to require that all voters present valid photo identification before voting, but was blocked by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act.
“SB14 preserves the integrity of the vote,” said Huffman. “It doesn’t disenfranchise voters, it empowers them. Every voter can know and trust that their vote and the votes of their fellow citizens is a legitimately cast vote, and not one cast by someone who is not an authorized voter. That was the intent.”
Common Cause, one of the most well-known Liberal activist groups working with local volunteers disagrees. Amanda Hart, a local volunteer with the group, recently handed out flyers to students with wording that makes vague claims of “intimidation at the polls”, and “improperly rejected voters”. “Voter ID laws being enacted all across the country could disenfranchise lots of voters,” she said. Common Cause, a nation-wide organization, lists no acts of actual voter suppression on their website and fails to cite mentions of voter intimidation, curiously excluding even the well-known case of members of the Black Panthers intimidating voters at a polling place in Philadelphia in 2008.
The office of the Texas Secretary of State published a list of acceptable forms of identification for Election Day, which includes an enormously wide array of documents, ranging from an actual driver’s license to a utility bill, creating numerous opportunities for the possibility of voter fraud to become dangerously real in the view of Alexis Burgess, who works with TrueTheVote, a group engaged in minimizing vote fraud. “We’ve already had a complaint to us from one voter who had to vote provisionally because someone voted his ballot during early voting,” she says with exasperation. “The voter log shows someone came in with a light bill from his apartment and was able to vote. When the real voter came, he was able to show I.D., so the previous vote will be cancelled out, but it’s a problem.”
Joyce Bingham, a local volunteer voter registrar says that while she’s had no problems with people being unable to vote (either through intimidation or suppression) during early voting or on Election Day, cited issues of confusion and even worry on the part of potential voters. “Well, they’re worried they might forget the documents they do have,” she says. “They may have the right ID, but if they don’t have it on them at the time, they may get turned away and then they can’t vote.” Bingham has no thoughts on the implied personal responsibility of voters to present some valid form of identification at the polls.
Actual evidence of voter fraud being perpetrated and the lack of evidence of voter suppression in Texas seemingly do not have any effect on David Watkins’ belief that the Voter ID legislation is wrong, nor in his approach to addressing the problem as he sees it. “The bottom line is that everyone who wants to vote should be able to. It’s wrong that we live in a state that just decides, ‘hey, we don’t want some people to vote, so we’re going to make up some laws to stop them.’” He consults the lists of poll-watchers with whom he’s working, and points at the list. “These are the people who are working to make sure that everyone and anyone can have their say.”