With the voter ID law in the news this week, much attention justifiably has been placed on minorities who will be disenfranchised if the law survives judicial scrutiny. One group, however, has been neglected and could suffer if the voter ID law is not stricken – Texans with disabilities.
Much reporting has been done that if the voter ID law is upheld, anyone who wants to vote will have to present a photo ID at the polls. However, there has been little to no education informing Texas' disabled population that in many instances, they are actually exempt from the photo voter ID law.
The exemption for voters with disabilities is at Section 13.002 of the Election Code, Subsection (i) and reads:
” (i)An applicant who wishes to receive an exemption from the requirements of Section 63.001(b) on the basis of disability must include with the person 's application:
(A)from the United States Social Security Administration evidencing the applicant has been determined to have a disability; or
(B)from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs evidencing the applicant has a disability rating of at least 50 percent; and
(2)a statement in a form prescribed by the secretary of state that the applicant does not have a form of identification acceptable under Section 63.0101.”
The problem, however, like much of the new voter ID law, is not only in the language, but in the practical application. Although disabled voters who meet the above criteria will not need a photo ID to vote, many still believe that they will. In the face of significant obstacles required to obtain a photo ID, many of Texas' disabled population will stay away from the polls. To see how this happens, read more below the jump.THEY DON'T THINK THEY CAN VOTE
Currently in Texas, according to Jessica Gomez at Disability Rights Texas, there are more than 900,000 people with disabilities over the age of 18 living in Texas who are receiving social security benefits on the basis of a disability and would qualify for the exemption. This does not even account for the number of Texans with disabilities who are over 18 and have a veterans rating of at least 50%, and would also qualify for the exemption.* And according to Dennis Borel, Executive Director of Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, the number of that population without acceptable photo identification is approximately 200,000.
The law, as written, would seem to protect this group of Texans from disenfranchisement. According to Borel, however, there's been little or no public education to people with disabilities about the exemption, about the fact that they are not required to obtain photo IDs in order to vote. In fact, they need only obtain proof of their disability from the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs, which they then submit in applying for their voter registration card.
“The documents [for the exemption]are easy to get,” says Gomez. “They can get it on the phone; it's free. It's much less burdensome than the free ID that's offered.”
“They don't know,” Borel says. “Until they know about it, and there's a real effort to make sure its known, it doesn't matter. It's incumbent upon the Secretary of State and the firms they hire to promote voting to get this done.”
He adds: “The problem of getting documentation is one of lesser degree…they can do some of that through phone or mail without their physical presence, but it is an extra step; it should not be minimized.”
Like many of the minorities who would virtually lose access to the polls under the new law, persons with disabilities face significant financial constraints; they occupy the lowest income-demographic in society. Further, for financial and functional reasons, they are less likely to drive (and, therefore, possess a driver's license) or have a passport (with a photograph) for travel.
In Texas, there are 84 counties that don't have a driver's license facility that would offer the free photo ID under the new law. Many Texans, including those with disabilities, face a 100 mile round trip to the nearest driver's license facility. According to Gomez, for a Texan with a disability – for example, in a wheelchair – hailing from a rural Texas town far from a driver's license facility and lacking public transportation, the transportation effort to obtain the touted photo ID becomes more than an inconvenience; it becomes an impossibility.
In short, much of the population of Texans with disabilities is not readily mobile, they think they need a photo ID to vote, they often lack traditional photo IDs, and they think they need to go to a Department of Public Safety location in order to obtain a photo ID.
“If they don't know they have the exemption, they'll stay away from the polls,” Borel says.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
The crucial step of public awareness and outreach has not been taken. Rules and procedures for implementing the law have not been set out. According to Borel, the Secretary of State wants to make sure that this population can vote; however, no outreach has been rolled out yet.
“They should be doing this now, before the election, because this law could be in play before November,” he says.
Gomez echoes the sense of urgency.
“We're looking at such a short timeline. Even if we got a decision tomorrow about voter ID, it would be very difficult to get the message out to voters.”
Further, the state hasn't allocated sufficient funds to do outreach; they've simply taken the existing, generalized voter outreach program and shoehorned voter ID into it, with no special carve out for disability outreach.
“The burden is going to fall on community groups,” says Gomez. “What I worry about is that we don't have sufficient time and resources to educate about the exemption. If the state isn't doing that and putting in the right amount of time or resources, then the exemption is useless.”
Community groups survive on limited resources, and so, as they wait for certainty from the court in D.C., their own plans for outreach are mere contingencies.
Borel frames the effect of the uncertainty thus:
“People with disabilities cherish the right to vote, and for them to experience this through ignorance of the exemption process, or to never be told, and they become disenfranchised because of this perception, that would be nothing less than a travesty.”
For more information about how the voter ID law would apply to Texans with disabilities, see the following information:
(888) 796-VOTE – hotline answering questions about voting rights for those with disabilities, run by Disability Rights Texas
Initially, we quoted Jessica Gomez stating that 900,000 was the number of people with disabilities in Texas who are aged 18 or older. This is not correct. The text of the article above now correctly states the quote that Ms. Gomez provided – that 900,000 represents the number of people with disabilities over the age of 18 living in Texas who are receiving social security benefits on the basis of a disability.