HOUSTON — In his wallet, Anthony Settles carries an expired Texas identification card, his Social Security card and an old student ID from the University of Houston, where he studied math and physics decades ago. What he does not have is the one thing that he needs to vote this presidential election: a current Texas photo ID.
For Settles to get one of those, his name has to match his birth certificate — and it doesn’t. In 1964, when he was 14, his mother married and changed his last name. After Texas passed a new voter-ID law, officials told Settles he had to show them his name-change certificate from 1964 to qualify for a new identification card to vote.
So with the help of several lawyers, Settles tried to find it, searching records in courthouses in the D.C. area, where he grew up. But they could not find it. To obtain a new document changing his name to the one he has used for 51 years, Settles has to go to court, a process that would cost him more than $250 — more than he is willing to pay.
“It has been a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Settles, 65, a retired engineer. “The intent of this law is to suppress the vote. I feel like I am not wanted in this state.”
In November, 17 states will have voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. Eleven of those states will require their residents to show a photo ID. They include swing states such as Wisconsin and states with large African American and Latino populations, such as North Carolina and Texas. On Tuesday, the entire 15-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans is to begin hearing a case regarding the legality of the Texas law, considered to be the most stringent in the country.
Supporters say that everyone should easily be able to get a photo ID and that the requirement is needed to combat voter fraud. But many election experts say that the process for obtaining a photo ID can be far more difficult than it looks for hundreds of thousands of people across the country who do not have the required photo identification cards. Those most likely to be affected are elderly citizens, African Americans, Hispanics and low-income residents.
“A lot of people don’t realize what it takes to obtain an ID without the proper identification and papers,” said Abbie Kamin, a lawyer who has worked with the Campaign Legal Center to help Texans obtain the proper identification to vote. “Many people will give up and not even bother trying to vote.”
A federal court in Texas found that 608,470 registered voters don’t have the forms of identification that the state now requires for voting. For example, residents can vote with their concealed-carry handgun licenses but not their state-issued student university IDs.
Across the country, about 11 percent of Americans do not have government-issued photo identification cards, such as a driver’s license or a passport, according to Wendy Weiser of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), compares his state’s new voter-ID requirement to what is needed for “boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed.” Texas officials, who say the laws are needed to combat possible voter fraud, recently said in court papers that the Justice Department and civil rights groups suing the state are not able to find anyone “who would face a substantial obstacle to voting.”
But former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. has called the costs associated for voters seeking a photo ID a “poll tax,” referring to fees that some Southern states used to disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era of laws enforcing racial segregation between the late 1800s through 1965.
Soon after Obama’s election, a surge of Republican-led state legislatures passed laws requiring photo IDs.
“Voters who have to show ID constantly in their everyday lives certainly don’t see ID as a problem,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It is a common-sense, basic requirement needed to ensure election integrity, which is an essential part of free and fair elections.”
Opponents say that the laws were designed to target people more likely to vote Democratic.
Last week, during the federal trial on Wisconsin’s voter-ID law, a former Republican staffer testified that GOP senators were “giddy” about the idea that the state’s 2011 voter-ID law might keep Democrats, particularly minorities in Milwaukee, from voting and help them win at the polls. “They were politically frothing at the mouth,” said the aide, Todd Allbaugh.
A recent voter-ID study by political scientists at the University of California at San Diego analyzed turnout in elections between 2008 and 2012 and found “substantial drops in turnout for minorities under strict voter ID laws.”
“These results suggest that by instituting strict photo ID laws, states could minimize the influence of voters on the left and could dramatically alter the political leaning of the electorate,” the study concluded.
The question of whether photo IDs are difficult to obtain has become central to cases across the country, where government and civil rights lawyers are challenging new state laws.
Three courts have in fact struck down the voter-ID law in Texas, but the state’s governor has not backed down and has promised to keep it in effect in November.
In 2012, a federal court in Washington concluded that the burden of obtaining a state voter-ID certificate would weigh disproportionately on minorities living in poverty, with many having to travel as much as 200 to 250 miles round trip.
“That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty,” wrote David S. Tatel, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in the panel’s 56-page opinion.
Voter-ID laws are also being litigated in North Carolina and Virginia, in addition to Texas and Wisconsin. Election experts predict that one of these cases could go to the Supreme Court before November.
Many of the residents struggling to obtain a valid photo ID are elderly and poor and were born in homes rather than hospitals. As a result, birth certificates were often lost or names were misspelled in official city records.
Hargie Randall, 72, was born in his family’s home in Huntsville, Tex., and has lived in the state his entire life. Randall, now living in Houston’s low-income Fifth Ward neighborhood, has several health problems and such poor eyesight that he is legally blind. He can’t drive and has to ask others for rides.
After Texas implemented its new law, Randall went to the Department of Public Safety (the Texas agency that handles driver’s licenses and identification cards) three times to try to get a photo ID to vote. Each time Randall was told he needed different items. First, he was told he needed three forms of identification. He came back and brought his Medicaid card, bills and a current voter registration card from voting in past elections.
“I thought that because I was on record for voting, I could vote again,” Randall said.
But he was told he still needed more documentation, such as a certified copy of his birth certificate.
Records of births before 1950, such as Randall’s, are not on a central computer and are located only in the county clerk’s office where the person was born.
For Randall, that meant an hour-long drive to Huntsville, where his lawyers found a copy of his birth certificate.
But that wasn’t enough. With his birth certificate in hand, Randall went to the DPS office in Houston with all the necessary documents. But, DPS officials still would not issue him a photo ID because of a clerical mistake on his birth certificate. One letter was off in his last name — “Randell” instead of “Randall” — so his last name was spelled slightly different than on all his other documents.
Kamin, the lawyer, asked the DPS official if they could pull up Randall’s prior driver’s-license information, as he once had a state-issued ID. The official told her that the state doesn’t keep records of prior identification after five years, and there was nothing they could do to pull up that information.
Kamin was finally able to prove to a DPS supervisor that there was a clerical error and was able to verify Randall’s identity by showing other documents.
But Myrtle Delahuerta, 85, who lives across town from Randall, has tried unsuccessfully for two years to get her ID. She has the same problem of her birth certificate not matching her pile of other legal documents that she carts from one government office to the next. The disabled woman, who has difficulty walking, is applying to have her name legally changed, a process that will cost her more than $300 and has required a background check and several trips to government offices.
“I hear from people nearly weekly who can’t get an ID either because of poverty, transportation issues or because of the government’s incompetence,” said Chad W. Dunn, a lawyer with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, who has specialized in voting rights work for 15 years.
“Sometimes government officials don’t know what the law requires,” Dunn said. “People take a day off work to go down to get the so-called free birth certificates. People who are poor, with no car and no Internet access, get up, take the bus, transfer a couple of times, stand in line for an hour and then are told they don’t have the right documents or it will cost them money they don’t have.”
“A lot of them just give up,” Dunn said.