It started early yesterday with a seemingly innocuous twitter message I received from a friend, someone who is an attorney and politically active.
My friend wrote, "is there a new law requiring scanning driver's license before you vote to make sure it matches voters id?"
That question indicated to me a potential problem on possibly five levels. If it was happening at the polls, it meant we had a situation that needed investigating. So I pulled on my Sherlock Holmes hat, and hit the phone, keyboard and pavement. I was surprised by what I found.
I found a potentially serious issue: possible voter suppression.
First, I asked my friend for more information. She had gone to the early voting location, where she was surprised to hear poll workers say that they required a driver's license. Once in the voting room, poll workers scanned the back of the driver's license.
"A driver's license?" I asked, "They specified a driver's license?"
She confirmed it was a driver's license, not any other type of photo ID.
Earlier this year, back in March, there was a referendum on the table to require a photo ID to vote. However, the problem with that is technically it's a poll tax, since the IDs cost (money and time). You can't charge people to vote. However, even that referendum didn't require a driver's license, just an official photo identification card.
These poll workers stated that they required a driver's license, according to my friend. When she asked, they said she didn't have to show hers to them to vote.
Next, I talked to another friend who voted that same day at that same place. She reported the exact same experience.
"Did they tell you they had to have your driver's license?" I asked.
"Yeah, they did," she said.
"Did they scan the back of it?"
"Yeah, they did," she said again.
"Did they tell you that you had a choice, and that they didn't need the license?"
"No, I just figured the rules had changed," she said.
"They didn't," I told her, "They can't require a driver's license, and technically, unless they have special pre-approval, it's illegal for them to scan the back of your license."
She looked surprised.
I contacted a group of political experts. They were fairly certain the voter's card was all you needed to vote. In fact, they were also fairly sure it was not acceptable to require a driver's license, and they had some serious questions about the legality of scanning the back of the driver's license.
It occurred to me that I'd better go to the polling location and gather first-hand information rather than relying on third-hand reports.
Following is my report from what I observed and learned:
The parking lot was so full that the side street was also packed with cars, and the line wrapped around the library.
I stood a little way back, and asked every person who exited the voting room the same series of questions: did they ask you for your driver's license? Did they scan it on the back? Did they tell you that you had to have it to vote?
Every single person had the exact same answers: Yes, they asked me to have my driver's license and voter's card out. They checked both. They scanned the back of my license. I don't know, I didn't ask and they didn't say.
Nobody asked because everyone I spoke to had a license and voter's card. Not one person I spoke to did not have both. I spoke to all races: Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and Caucasian.
All had the same story. So it was very consistent.
So then I got a little closer and listened to the poll workers who were walking the line giving instructions. There were two different poll workers, first a man and second a woman. Both said everyone in line needed to have their driver's license and voter's card.
I don't know if this affected whether anyone voted that day or not.
Each person I shared this story with became curious and concerned. One started doing statute research, and I decided I'd better research with the Secretary of State (SOS), Elections Division. They set the rules so they should know what they are.
Reading through the SOS website, it didn't look like any of the voting procedures had changed. The answers to frequently asked questions were what I remembered from last time I voted, and I understood from reading the site that a driver's license was simply one form of accepted ID to prove you are you and a registered voter who is in the voter database.
However, I know websites are not always per se up to date (although I would expect the SOS Elections Division to be up to the minute up to date right now) so I decided to call and double-check. I spoke first with a man who identified himself only as "a temp who has only been here for four weeks." He transferred me to the Customer Service department in the Secretary of State Election Division. The woman I spoke to there identified herself only as a customer service agent. Following is a transcript of that call:
She said it is statewide a new rule to provide a driver's license to vote and that every polling place should be asking for a driver's license, and scanning it.
She said they are not collecting the data, are just using it to match you with your voter data--confirming your ID.
ME: What if you don't have a TDL?
HER: You need another form of official photo ID.
ME: I thought that referendum failed.
HER: Well okay it doesn't have to be a photo ID but a passport or a bank statement or something like that. They need to match your name and face with their data.
ME: I was unaware the rules had changed. I've always been able to show my voter certificate and sign the book and vote. Can I not just use my certificate and vote? I have to sign in. If there's not a new law, that should still work, right?
She conceded that YES, they could compare signatures, but emphasized this was to protect voting integrity and protect me, make sure nobody voted as me.
ME:That doesn't seem likely. How would someone suddenly be able to do that? Why are you thinking that's going to happen?
HER: Well we're all trying to keep up with the massive number of new voters, and of course with the recent catastrophe...
ME: What catastrophe?
HER:The hurricane! (she said like "you moron")
ME: I know all about that hurricane, I live on the coast. What about the hurricane and voting?
HER:Well...all those records...
ME: What records? What about the records?
HER: So many were, you know, in the hurricane.
ME: Are you saying vital important records of people including their voting information were lost or destroyed in Ike? I didn't hear anything about that!
HER: Well, they might have been, you know...
ME: No, I don't know. Were there records lost and destroyed or not?
(I finally squeezed out a "not-ish" like answer from her.) (But she emphasized they might have been and there are lots of displaced voters, and so many new ones...)
ME: So they are only doing this here because of the hurricane?
HER: Oh, no, they are doing it statewide. There's just been so much...you know...
ME: So much what?
HER: Well...allegations and goings on and new voters...
HER: They have to have increased attention, to preserve integrity, and we have to do this to try to keep up with the high number of voters.
In short, what it sounds to me like is that the new rule didn't pass but the SOS put it in place anyway, and is using "high voter turnout, the hurricane, and concerns about fraud" as the excuse why. Everything she said matched exactly what I saw at the polls:
- They want a Texas Driver's License (TDL).
- They prefer a TDL.
- They will say they need a TDL. They will not tell you that you have an alternative or that this is not required unless you question. (The peer pressure is fierce because they were very emphatic that without a license you will cause a delay and slowdown and may disrupt voting integrity.)
- They will scan the back of the TDL.
- They don't need your voter's certificate.
- If you don't have a TDL, you need the certificate and another form of photo ID, preferably a passport, well if you don't have one, something like a bank statement might work.
This is not technically correct, based on what is in writing here and here. The rules, Rules, and law, as far as I have been able to tell, have not changed. Voters in Texas should still only need their voter's certificate. Voters may be asked to provide an additional form of identification if they are first time voters or there is some question---and this does include things such a driver's license, but may also be something with your name and address on it, although they do prefer something with a photograph---but the driver's license is not required to vote in Texas.
The question about the legality of scanning the back of the license is still in question. We're unclear, despite asking twice, whether the Department of Justice or Attorney General actually precleared this as approved. There is the possibility that if the request was filed and received no answer in 60 days that the request could be considered granted if not opposed.
In my opinion, while there is some possibility of concern about poll workers having access to the data stored in the strip on the back of the license, they are approved workers and it seems a small risk. The data stored back there, I learned, does far exceed the data poll workers would need to identify a voter (which should only include the information found on the voter certificate).
The larger concern is making it seem as if one must have a driver's license to vote, when that is not true.
You can't make voters think they haven't got the right information simply to make your job easier and faster.
It's far more important that all registered voters have free and fair access to vote than to have the line move fast.
Unfortunately, the problem at Texas polls doesn't end in this location or with the driver's license issue.
Stay tuned for more.