The Dallas Morning News

Study: Voter ID education efforts fell short

Court-ordered $2.5 million campaign didn’t prevent confusion, researcher­s say

- Jim Malewicz, Texas Tribune

Texas’ court-ordered $2.5 million voter education campaign failed to prevent widespread confusion about the state’s identifica­tion rules ahead of the 2016 general election, according to a study released Monday.

And such a misunderst­anding may have kept some eligible voters in key political battlegrou­nds from showing up to the polls, the University of Houston study found.

A federal judge last year ordered the Texas Secretary of State’s office to spend $2.5 million educating Texans about its voter ID requiremen­ts ahead of the 2016 elections. The requiremen­ts were relaxed after a federal appeals court last year ruled that Texas’ strict 2011 ID law discrimina­ted against minority voters.

The education efforts — a mix of television and radio advertisem­ents and online media — fell short, the research suggested.

“What was clear was, Texas voters did not have a good understand­ing of what the photo ID rules were in 2016,” said one of the study’s authors, Mark P. Jones of the University of Houston and Rice University. “The Texas Secretary of State’s office could have done a much better job, although, of course, they need the resources to do it.”

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, declined to comment on the study, citing pending legal battles over the state’s voter ID law. (Pablos was sworn in two months after the November elections).

Researcher­s surveyed hundreds of registered voters who chose not to cast ballots in two “purple” regions, those with hotly contested races between Republican­s and Democrats: sprawling Harris County and Congressio­nal District 23, where Rep. Will Hurd represents an area that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and takes in most of the Texas-Mexico border.

Nearly 60 percent of non-voters surveyed in both jurisdicti­ons incorrectl­y believed that everyone who showed up to the polls was required to present approved photo ID, the study said. They were unaware of a court-ordered fix to the state’s 2011 law, which allowed those who could not “reasonably obtain” such IDs to present alternativ­e documents.

Latinos surveyed were substantia­lly less likely than whites to accurately understand the requiremen­ts, the study said.

Just over a dozen of the 819 non-voters surveyed lacked a photo ID required under the strict 2011 law. Neverthele­ss, roughly one in seven flagged a lack of photo ID as a reason they did not vote, while about 1 percent of non-voters said it was the main reason they did not show up.

“If [Texas] just used rules similar to those enforced in 2016 but did a better job educating voters, we would see only very modest adverse effects on participat­ion,” Jones said.

The survey results tracked similarly to findings in a 2015 joint Rice University and University of Houston study of CD-23 that found eligible voters stayed home because they erroneousl­y thought they lacked proper IDs — possibly factoring into the outcome of Hurd’s close win over Democrat Pete Gallego.

Jones called it unrealisti­c to expect the secretary of state’s office, previously led by Carlos Cascos, to educate wouldbe voters across the vast state with just $2.5 million — a sum better suited to reach folks in just one of Texas’ 36 congressio­nal districts.

A federal judge ordered Texas to launch the voter education effort just three months before Election Day last November, and the campaign hit an early speed bump when that same judge ordered the secretary of state’s office to correct and re-issue press materials following allegation­s that the office inaccurate­ly described fixes to the ID rules.

The agency at the time called educating voters its top objective.

Researcher­s can’t analyze how effectivel­y the agency has used its scarce resources for education because it has refused to release key details about where it purchased television and radio advertisem­ents to publicize the relaxation to ID requiremen­ts in the run-up to the elections — secrecy supported by a ruling from Attorney General Ken Paxton.

That lack of disclosure has angered some Democrats. Legislatio­n filed by State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, would require the agency to make such informatio­n public. The House Committee on Elections discussed the proposal — House Bill 3285 — at a hearing Monday.

The secrecy has “hindered our constituen­ts’ ability to hold state officials accountabl­e,” Rodriguez told the committee.

Keith Ingram, director of elections under Pablos, said his office did not take a position on the bill but is concerned it would expose trade secrets of private media firms who contract with the state.

“Each of the vendors who put bids in for these contracts have kind of their own secret sauce,” he said.

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