Anyone who hopes to vote in Texas this year needs an approved form of government-issued photo ID. Concealed handgun licences count; student IDs do not. The state’s Republican lawmakers introduced this requirement in 2011, arguing that it would prevent fraud and ensure the integrity of elections. They passed it over the objections of Democrats, who maintained that voter-ID laws are merely a cynical way to suppress turnout—especially among African-Americans, Hispanics and poor people—and who have continued to fight the law in court on that basis. The legal wrangling has thus far been inconclusive, and confusing. Texas was finally able to implement its voter-ID law in time for this year’s primaries, as a result of Shelby County v Holder, the Supreme Court decision in 2013 that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act (meaning that a number of states with a history of discriminating against minority voters, including Texas, no longer need the federal government to clear new voting restrictions). But then on October 8th a federal judge struck down Texas’s law on its own merits, ruling that insofar as some 600,000 registered voters in the state lacked the relevant forms of ID—about 4.5% of the state’s registered voters—the requirement was tantamount to a “poll tax.” On October 18th, though, with the early voting period set to begin about 48 hours later, the Supreme Court allowed the law to remain in place for the general election. Debate over the law promises to continue. But this year, for the first time, Texans will finally be able to assess its impact in practice.
So, is Texas’s voter-ID law deterring voters? The answer, so far, is hardly clear. Let’s look at the early-voting period, which ended on October 31st: 19.11% of the registered voters in Texas’s 15 most populous counties weighed in, either in person or by mail. During this same period in 2010—the last non-presidential election year—the figure was 20.76%. Though the state has seen a steep rise in registered voters in recent years, the total number of early votes cast had ticked down, from 1,731,589 in 2010, to 1,715,731 this year.
Texas is known for its low turnout rate. Gerrymandered districts ensure few of the legislative races are competitive, and polls suggest that Republicans will once again win all the major races this year by whopping margins. Yet the decline in early voters is notable, as the state’s elections are busier and more exciting than usual this year. After more than a decade with Rick Perry at the helm, the state is getting a new governor; all of the top jobs in state government, in fact, are changing hands. And despite more than two decades of disarray, the Democrats started the cycle in a fighting mood. With Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth state senator, they have a high-profile candidate at the top of the ticket, and a number of impressive other candidates. In 2010 the party didn’t even have a candidate for comptroller; this year they chanced upon one with a sterling record from the private sector. National Democrats have also made a splashy effort to rally the troops via an initiative called Battleground Texas, which reportedly raised about $6.6m so far this year. Yet Texas voters are apparently failing to respond to all of this hubbub.