The case for the Voting Rights Act isn't made with exaggerations

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013  Print Reprints
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campbell Sure, it doesn't make sense that a young woman can use a student ID card to get federal airport security approval to board a flight but not to get Texas poll worker approval to cast a ballot.

But is that enough to make Texas' voter ID requirement a violation of the Voting Rights Act?

The Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has used a pair of sisters from San Antonio who don't have driver's licenses to illustrate how egregious the Texas statute is.

But their example seems disingenuous.

Civil rights groups are pressing hard on the Voting Rights Act as Wednesday's Supreme Court arguments approach in Shelby County v. Holder, an Alabama case that's expected to determine the future of the law's Section 5. That part of the act requires some jurisdictions, including Texas, to get permission for electoral changes.

There are compelling, if deeply technical, arguments on both sides. The vote among the justices is bound to be close and the ruling complex.

While the Shelby County case doesn't involve voter ID, the outcome is expected to reverberate for the 2011 Texas law that Republicans insist is essential to deter election fraud and Democrats insist is essentially to dilute their election strength.

I wouldn't be so skeptical about the photo ID requirement if I weren't so cynical about GOP motives in passing it.

But dubious examples don't make the case against the law.

The Leadership Conference's news release says, "Meet Victoria Rose Rodriguez, a high school student from San Antonio whose voting rights were violated by the state of Texas." (She and her sister also are described as college-age, an annoying inconsistency.)

Victoria says in the accompanying video, "I would say it's discriminatory. I do feel like people were trying to keep the voice of Hispanic people, and other minorities, [keep] their voice down."

Luis Figueroa, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, then explains that Victoria and her sister Nicole haven't gotten driver's licenses because adding the young women to the family's car insurance would be "a significant burden."

I can sympathize; my husband and I have carried two children on our car insurance for more than four years, and the cost, even for good drivers, makes me gag. But a voting rights violation? No, not even if you believe the Texas law is too restrictive.

The statute, which hasn't gone into effect because it hasn't won approval from the Justice Department or a federal court, requires those voting in person to produce a driver's license; a special photo ID issued by the Department of Public Safety; a military ID; a passport; or a concealed-handgun license, which also is issued by DPS. (No ID needed for absentee mail-in ballots, a strike against the fighting-fraud rationale.)

Why not a student ID or other government-issued documents that show you are who you say you are? The GOP-dominated Legislature apparently likes gun licenses better.

Judge David Tatel, who wrote a federal panel ruling that went against Texas, said the Legislature could have reduced the negative impact on poor and minority voters but chose not to.

The federal court found that the law "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens," largely on people who lack the acceptable IDs but can't get a free DPS voting card because they can't afford the needed documentation or lack transportation to offices that might be hundreds of miles away and don't open late or on weekends. That doesn't sound like the argument made on behalf of the Rodriguez sisters in San Antonio.

I understand the push to preserve Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- and the push to dismantle it. But exaggerations or misrepresentations, on either side of the debate, aren't enlightening or persuasive.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.

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Twitter: @LindaPCampbell