The new Texas voter ID law had one effect with which neither side can quibble. It got Fort Worth in the national news for something besides our weather or being forever and famously known as the place where former Baptist Sunday school teacher Willie Nelson lit up his first joint.
Before the Nov. 5election, Fort Worth was ground zero for Voter ID law news. Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ signing of an affidavit when she voted early and former Speaker of the U.S. House Jim Wright’s problems in getting a state-issued personal identification card both made national news.
But what hasn’t been covered nationally or even locally is how the law’s implementation, at least in Tarrant County, wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
One election judge in a precinct near downtown tried to school me on the ins and outs of the law while he ate a fried chicken take-out lunch. He told me that if a voter showed up with an ID bearing a name that was “substantially similar” to what appeared on the voting rolls but that the addresses were the same on both the ID and the registration card, the judge could decide whether to have the voter initial the affidavit. Wrong!
The next day, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn confirmed that the judge was in error, and he didn’t seem very surprised about it. The similar addresses have nothing to do with whether the affidavit is required. And it is not up to the judge to decide. If the names are similar but not identical, the voter still must initial to affirm his or her identity.
When I went to vote at my regular polling place, a Knights of Columbus Hall, my driver’s license read Kenneth Pardue, but my voter registration card had me as Kenneth Wheatcroft-Pardue, sort of a textbook example of someone with “substantially similar” names who needed to initial the affidavit. But inexplicably, I wasn’t asked to initial anything, even when the election judge showed me a printout of the slide presentation that Raborn had used to train election workers. It showed as clear as day that voters with “substantially similar” names needed to initial the affidavits.
A friend on the western edge of Tarrant County thought she might have to initial the affidavit because her maiden name is on her driver’s license but not on her voter registration card. She, too, reported that she was never asked to initial the affidavit.
My own admittedly unscientific checking of polling places near where I live found that 2 percent of voters or less were asked to initial affidavits because of discrepancies between voter rolls and the forms of identification provided. For comparison, it was reported that in San Antonio a third of voters had to initial the affidavits; in Fort Bend County, the figure was 40 percent.
Before the election Raborn said he had no plans to count the number of voters who initialed the affidavits. After hearing of the uneven implementation, he told me he had decided to check on those numbers in order to find the election judges who are incorrectly interpreting the law.
This Keystone Kops-like implementation of the voter ID law points to the deeper problem that we have not only in Tarrant County or in Texas, but throughout the United States: a patchwork, partisan, and in many places incompetent system of administering elections.
Makes you wish for, what could we call it — a federal Voting Rights Act.
Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue, an essyist, poet, and short story writer from Fort Worth, can be reached at email@example.com.