In his essay Stealth Authoritarianism, Ozan Varol posits “Laws that regulate voter registration, which exist in virtually all democratic nations to ensure electoral fairness, afford the opportunity to disenfranchise portions of the population.” The current surge of voter ID laws spearheaded by Donald Trump and fellow conservatives embody textbook examples of stealth authoritarianism through regulating voter registration, and actively serve to suppress certain segments of the population from voting. More specifically the draconian voter ID laws in Texas exemplify the authoritarian nature of these voter ID laws.
Voter ID laws serve disenfranchise the masses by requiring identification to vote that may not be readily accessible to all eligible voters. In the United States, 35 states require a form of identification and 17 of these states require a photo ID. Texas itself has even stricter guidelines for what constitutes a valid photo ID. According to the state website there are only 7 valid forms of ID: Texas Driver License, Texas Election Identification Certificate, Texas Personal Identification, Texas Handgun License, United States Military Identification Card containing the person’s photograph, United States Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph, or a United States Passport. Immediately, the first barrier to entry we see here are the fees necessary to acquire a photo ID. In Texas, one of the states that require a photo ID, you must pay either 25 dollars for a driver’s license or 16 dollars for an identification card. While this obviously serves as a barrier to the deeply impoverished through the fee, it also requires them to take off work in order to obtain their license at the Department of Motor Vehicles office. Unfortunately many minimum wage workers cannot easily spare a day’s worth of wages in order to register to vote. In fact, the US District Court of the District of Columbia cited these specific points when they ruled against Texas’ voter ID laws in August 2012, saying “while a 200- to 250-mile trip to and from a D.P.S. office would be a heavy burden for any prospective voter, such a journey would be especially daunting for the working poor.”
Texas did not sway in the face of legal condemnation of their voter ID laws and attempted to mollify the exclusionary problems caused by their voter ID requirements through Senate Bill 5 of Session 85 signed into law by Governor Greg Abbot on 6/1/2017. This addendum allowed voters to waive the photo ID requirement by swearing under threat of perjury that they could not obtain identification due to lack of transportation, lack of birth certificate or other documents needed to obtain identification, work schedule, lost or stolen identification, family responsibilities, or required identification had been applied for but not yet received. On the surface this bill seems to appease the complaints caused by Texas’ strict photographic ID requirements, but in reality the bill leaves uncomfortable room for discrimination. There is no prescribed definition of the amount of “family responsibilities” or tough work scheduling needed to justify waiving photo ID requirements. Workers are instructed to accept any reason as valid without question on the form until a question of voter fraud arises. However, the question of voter fraud has arisen for almost 100 thousand people already, as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reports 95 thousand cases of potential voter fraud in wake of the 2018 elections. When these forms are thus reviewed, the incumbent powers are the people who get to decide the validity of each person’s waiver, becoming an exercise of flexed authoritarian power. In addition, Even if voters without photo identification are not committing perjury in any way, the threat of possible legal repercussions serves as a deterrent towards the working poor who do not have photo IDs.
All these authoritarian oversteps are carried out in the name of preventing voter fraud. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claimed multiple times verbatim that “Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is a primary function of state government and is essential to preserving our democratic process,” during his decade-long legal quest to instate strong Texas voter ID laws. However, voter fraud is not nearly as widespread an occurrence our president and conservative figureheads in Texas portray it. Professor Justin Levitt from Loyola Law School claims that since 2000 only 31 credible instances of voter fraud occurred that could have been prevented by stricter ID laws. Varol claims “fairness and stability can also mask more insidious and anti-democratic purposes,” and Texan authorities are using the natural desire for just elections to pilfer power. These voter ID laws cause real restrictions on the voting ability of poor, working class voters in order to combat a bogeyman created by conservative authorities to justify themselves. Texas voter ID laws are an instance of stealth authoritarianism, and they threaten to wring the democracy out of their state.