Senate Bill 14 and Vote Suppression in Texas
As a necessary function of the United States’ electoral system, Voter ID laws are, at the surface, designed to prevent voter fraud. This concern is not unique to Texas; thirty-four states have some form of Voter ID requirement, though only 32 of those state laws are in full force today (Voter Identification Requirements). However, recent criticism of Texas’ voter ID laws (who boast some of the strictest identification requirements in the nation) has led many to believe that they serve no other purpose than to suppress minority voting blocks. Still, Such criticism typically rests on the assumption that minorities in general face greater difficulties in obtaining the types of identification that the voter ID legislation requires. Lately, the question of vote suppression is raised with each passing election in the United States, with legislators often sent back to the drawing boards to re-balance the potential threat of voter fraud against the possibility of disenfranchising minority voters.
Texas’ Senate Bill 14 has been the subject of heated debate on several occasions over the past few years, and the 2016 presidential election was no exception. US News and World Report has gone so far as to call SB 14 “plain and simple discrimination” and “a law that forces poorer persons to choose between their wages and their franchise” (Korgoankar). SB 14 was originally passed by the state legislature of Texas in 2011; however, SB 14 was not enacted immediately. It was not until 2013 before SB 14 was enacted fully in Texas after several legal challenges were presented by organizations like the NAACP. Further legal challenges eventually had SB 14 declared discriminatory, but not before SB 14 had a chance to operate fully during the course of several elections in Texas.
To assess SB 14’s overall impact on voter turnout in Texas, it is necessary to obtain a clear picture of Texas’ electorate and their voting patterns. Overall, Texas’ voter turnout pattern is unremarkable; approximately 45% of Texans show up for presidential elections, with a significant drop in midterm years (Texas Secretary of State). Figure 1 demonstrates Texans’ enthusiasm for presidential elections, showing little variance (less than 3%) between any two elections. The most recent Trump-Clinton election, possibly the most contentious in modern US history, still attracted a little less than half (46.5%) of the voting age population to the polls. Texans, it seems, as well as Americans in general, exhibit a sort of apathy for the political process. Whether they experience difficulty getting time off from work, finding someone to attend to their children, or simply securing transport to the polls, the majority of Texas’ electorate does not vote.
In order to ascertain the real effect (if any) that SB 14 has had on past elections in Texas, it is necessary for one to study data from several different elections. Figure 2 illustrates Texan enthusiasm for gubernatorial races over the past two decades. These data potentially show the greatest impact that SB 14, when enforced, has on voter turnout (Texas Secretary of State).
The timing of the 2014 gubernatorial election is especially critical in assessing SB 14’s impact on voter turnout, as that election was the only election in which SB 14 was in full-force (Brennan Center). This election saw Greg Abbot, then the state’s Attorney General, handily defeat Democrat Wendy Davis by over a twenty point margin. More remarkable than the margin of victory, however, are the voter turnout figures for this election. Given that this election was the first open election since 1990, one might expect to find that voter turnout would have increased given the novelty of both candidates. Ultimately, this was not the case. Unlike the gubernatorial election of 2002, which saw an increase in voter turnout to elect Rick Perry to his first term in office, voters turned out in near-historic lows to elect Greg Abbot. As figure 2 illustrates, the 2014 gubernatorial election experienced the lowest voter turnout in almost 20 years. The voter ID restrictions demanded by SB 14 were in full effect for this election; it is difficult to believe that these restrictions had no effect on voter turnout, especially given the sharp drop in turnout when compared to the 2010 gubernatorial election (Texas Secretary of State, Figure 2). When these factors are taken together, they beg serious questions about the ultimate integrity of Governor Abbot’s election.
Finally, data on the breakdown of registered voters by race can help to elucidate the relative impact of SB 14 on minorities. Data as recent as 2012 are useful in illustrating the voting patterns of individual racial groups, as figure 3 shows.
Certain trends are common throughout all racial groups, like voting at higher frequencies in presidential election years and lower frequencies in off years (Will C Velasquez institute). Texas’ Hispanic electorate, however, appears to be struggling to register to vote in recent years. There is a negative correlation in the voter registration rates of Hispanic voters starting from the year 2002, when Rick Perry won his first gubernatorial election. With each subsequent gubernatorial election, fewer Hispanics of voting age registered to vote. A similar, but markedly weaker, correlation can be perceived for presidential elections as well. Most importantly, however, is the fact that this correlation was not present among whites or blacks of voting age; in fact, blacks registered in historically high numbers for the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
These data, taken together with data about presidential and gubernatorial elections, at least tentatively point to the possibility that Hispanic persons are victims of ongoing vote suppression in Texas. Barring that, the reason for the decline in the Hispanic electorate is either that they are becoming markedly less motivated to vote, or that there are other (non-Voter ID) barriers that create a significant enough burden to prevent them from voting. The weather, for example, can often be a factor in low voter turnout years, which the Dallas Observer attributes to the severely low voter turnout in 2014 (Young). When considering long-term data on Voter Turnout in Texas, it appears that the Voter Turnout rates in recent history are not all that unusual, usually varying less than 5% with each election cycle, as figure 4 shows. Further study may bring underlying reasons why the Hispanic vote appears to be dwindling to light.
Texas’ voter ID laws are highly controversial, but stakeholders on both sides of the voter ID issue tend to have very valid points. On the one hand, no citizen should ever find themselves disenfranchised, but on the other hand, safeguarding elections from voter fraud is quintessential to maintaining a true democracy. As the 85th Legislative session draws to a close, it is imperative that Texas’ legislators pass reform that advocates both for its elections and its people.
“Texas NAACP v. Steen (consolidated with Veasey v. Abbott) | Brennan Center for Justice.” Brennancenter.org. Brennan Center, 03 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.
“WCVI — Texas Latino Voter Statistics.” Wcvi.org. Will C Velasquez Institute, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.
Tinsley, Anna M. “‘Vigilante-style’ voter suppression claims in Tarrant spark federal complaint.” Star-telegram.com. Dallas Star Telegram, 28 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.
“Turnout and Voter Registration Figures (1970-current).” Sos.state.tx.us. Texas Secretary of State, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.
“Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2014.” Census.gov. US Census Bereau, 01 July 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
Korgoankar, Natasha. “Texas’ Voter ID Laws Are Plain And Simple Discrimination.” usnews.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
“Voter Identification Requirements | Voter ID Laws”. Ncsl.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.
Young, Stephen. “Texas Had The Worst Voter Turnout In The Country, And The Rain In Dallas Didn’t Help”. dallasobserver.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 5 May 2017.