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29Jan/140

Voter ID: A 2013 Postmortem

The most common refrain from defenders of Texas' Voter ID law after the first test of an election has been that there were few, if any problems. The proof? Only a minor number of voters turned away due to not having an ID and a manageable number of provisional ballots cast because of same. As far as the argument goes: there was no problem, so the law works and it poses no impediment to voters. To wit:

» Chron: Early vote sets record in county: Clerk says voter ID law is not causing problems

"We don't have a hint of that," Stanart said of difficulties reported elsewhere in the state.

When problems arise, he said poll workers are trained to do on-site verification and direct voters to check the box that functions as an affidavit. About 40 percent of registered Harris County voters have mismatched addresses that could require additional verification, Stanart said.

"It only takes a few seconds extra," he said.

Case closed, right? Unfortunately for the law's defenders, it takes even fewer seconds when there's no affidavit to sign. And that's what happened at a significant number of Early Voting locations in Harris County.

The fundamental flaw in the "no big deal" argument is the logic that only the most dire outcome (a voter being turned away) or the most stringent cure (a provisional ballot) represents the entirety of the law's negative impact. It's somewhat similar to evaluating the crime rate based on the number of state executions carried out in Huntsville. Among the secondary problems are things like lengthening lines at polling places or dissuading voters from registering to vote if they feel a photo ID is all that is needed. There are other concerns, as well. But we likely won't get a full taste of that until November 2016.

An early indicator of the impact of the law seems to have gotten little coverage during the last election. The Dallas Morning News stumbled upon it during the Early Voting period - a quote from Dallas County Clerk Toni Pippins-Poole that 1 in 7 voters reviewed had signed a similar name affidavit under the new law. 14% of voters. Remember that number. I'll revisit it later in the week.

What makes the affidavit process important to note is that voter registrars and county clerks around the state were given lists and counts of the percentage of their voter roll that had name mismatches. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has been quoted saying that Harris County's number was roughly 40%. Given that the first election under the new law would be conducted under a low-turnout, high-propensity-voter universe in an odd-numbered-year election, it would stand to reason that a realistic expectation for what share of voters would need to sign an affidavit would be something less than that 40%.

Likewise, there were issues of training to consider. The 2013 elections were conducted after counties had already established their budgets for voting personnel training, outreach and communications. Anecdotally, I can offer a few datapoints from my own experience working as an Election Clerk during Early Voting in Harris County. For one, I did not initial an affidavit for either the November election or the December runoff despite my first name being different on my ID and the voter roll. Secondly, I know firsthand that there were voters we missed getting a signature from despite the fact that they fell into a "substantially similar" situation. In short, even if you did all the training and the workers knew the law, there's no guarantee that you fire on 100% efficiency. And just as well since there is neither a penalty for election workers who fail to get an initialed affidavit, nor a prohibition from voting for a voter who neglects, forgets, refuses, or isn't told to initial.

So what percentage of voters ended up signing an affidavit? ... and what does it suggest about how the law was administered?

To get that answer, I obtained records from the Harris County Clerk and commenced tabulating the data. I'll be spelling out some of these results in the days ahead. For now, here's the big-ticket takeaway: voters in Harris County were qualified to vote by election workers in extremely different ways depending on the location that the voter voted at. In several locations, the law was followed in a manner as close to thorough as might be humanly possible. In others, it didn't appear that election workers had gotten the figurative memo about the new law. In a plurality of Early Vote locations, the results were mixed.

For introductory purposes, a small sketch of the data: Trini Mendenhall Sosa Community Center in Spring Branch had signed affidavits from 0.43% (as in less than 1%) of its voters. Meanwhile, neighboring West Gray Multi-Service Center saw 15.1% of its voters sign affidavits. In other words: if you wanted to experience "no problem" with the law, then Sosa was the place for you to go vote. If you wish to subject yourself to more scrutiny by election workers, then head to West Gray. Discrepancies like this were rampant in Harris County. And I'm willing to guess that it's not the way that architects of the law intended it to be administered.

What I find interesting about these results is that, for all intents and purposes, nobody can say for certain that the new law was followed in any kind of meaningful way. It's that conclusion that makes it impossible to say "there was no problem" with the law since the law effectively wasn't administered. I have little doubt that election workers knew to ask for a photo ID and that there may, indeed, be only the most minor of problems exhibited with this task during a low-turnout election. But if election workers weren't checking the names on the ID against the names on the voting rolls, then there should be no assurance that they were doing anything meaningful with those IDs.

Through the remainder of this week, I'll be rolling out some of the findings, and raw data to demonstrate how this played out in Harris County. Ultimately, I think there are findings that are likely to concern both advocates of the law as well as opponents. And while I'm not a believer in the necessity of the law, I think there are several things to review before the law goes full scale in a Presidential year.

Below the fold, I've posted the administrative rule by which the similar name affidavit process kicks in. Feel free to read it in all the legalese glory it contains (or skim through to subsection (d) for the guts of the rule). The nickel version is that if there is any single thing different in comparing names, then a voter is to initial the affidavit. Having spoken to several election workers who worked both Early Voting and Election Day, I assure you that even that brief understanding hasn't taken hold. The data definitely seems to back that conclusion up.

Texas Administrative Code
Title 1, Part 4, Chapter 81, Subchapter E: Election Day Procedures

(a) When a voter offers to vote at a polling place using a form of identification described by §63.0101 of the Texas Election Code ("presented ID document") and the voter's name on the presented ID document does not match exactly the voter's name as it appears on the official list of registered voters, the voter's name on the presented ID document must be "substantially similar" to the voter's name as it appears on the official list of registered voters.

(b) In determining whether a voter's name on the presented ID document is substantially similar to the voter's name as it appears on the official list of registered voters, the reviewing early voting clerk, deputy early voting clerk, election judge or election clerk (collectively included in the term "election worker") shall refer to the standards in subsection (c) of this section.

(c) A voter's name on the presented ID document is considered substantially similar to the name on the official list of registered voters and a voter's name on the official list of registered voters is considered substantially similar to the name on the presented ID document if one or more of the circumstances in paragraphs (1) - (4) of this subsection are present. In determining whether one or more of those circumstances are present, election workers should consider whether information on the presented ID document matches elements of the voter's information on the official list of registered voters such as the voter's residence address or date of birth, which may be strong indicators that the name on the presented ID document is substantially similar to the name on the official list of registered voters and vice versa if:

     (1) The name on the presented ID document is slightly different from one or more of the name fields on the official list of registered voters or one or more of the name fields on the official list of registered voters is slightly different from the name on the presented ID document;

     (2) The name on the presented ID document or on the official list of registered voters is a customary variation of the formal name such as, for illustrative purposes only, Bill for William, or Beto for Alberto, that is on the document or list that must match, as the case may be;

     (3) The voter's name on the presented ID document contains an initial, a middle name, or a former name that is not on the official list of registered voters or the official list of registered voters contains an initial, a middle name, or a former name that is not on the presented ID document; or

     (4) A first name, middle name, former name, or initial of the voter's name that occupies a different field on the presented ID document than a first name, middle name, former name, or initial of the voter's name on the official list of registered voters.

(d) If the reviewing election worker makes a determination that the voter's name on the presented ID document and the official list of registered voters are substantially similar, the voter shall be accepted for voting if the voter submits the "Similar Name Affidavit" prescribed by the Secretary of State stating that the voter offering the presented ID document is the same person on the official list of registered voters.

(e) After the determination is complete, the presented ID document must be returned to the voter immediately.

(f) The completed Similar Name Affidavit shall be placed in Envelope No. 4 (or other designated container) to be delivered to the county voter registrar to address any necessary changes to the official list of registered voters in accordance with the correction process prescribed in §15.021 of the Texas Election Code.

(g) If the reviewing election worker makes a determination that the voter's names on the presented ID document and the official list of registered voters are not substantially similar, the voter shall be offered a provisional ballot. The voter shall be processed as a provisional voter in accordance with the provisional voter process established under Texas law, at the time of voting.

(h) If the voter casts a provisional ballot due to a determination by the election worker that the name on the presented ID document was not substantially similar to the name on the official list of registered voters, the voter is eligible to submit a form of identification described by §63.0101 of the Texas Election Code, including the presented ID document that the voter presented at the polling place, in person to the voter registrar's office within six days of election day pursuant to Texas law. The voter shall be informed of this procedure at the time the voter casts his or her provisional ballot.

(i) In determining whether an ID document presented to the voter registrar under subsection (h) of this section is substantially similar to the voter's name on the official list of registered voters, the voter registrar shall utilize the processes outlined in subsections (c) and (d) of this section.

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