Voters in one Texas county are worried that newly issued state voter certification cards may cause confusion at the polls due to requirements in the state’s new voter identification law. Nearly 600,000 new voter registration certificates have been mailed out to voters in Austin and surrounding Travis County, and about a sixth of them include “former” names of registered voters—such as maiden names—as required by the new statute.
Many of those voters are concerned that the former names listed on their new orange voting cards may affect their ability to vote in the future. In fact, so many voters are concerned that Travis County has issued a press release headlined “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” in an effort to assuage voters’ fears. Says Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant in that release: “It appears that the intent was to provide additional information for the new photo ID requirement, but this unintended consequence has upset many voters.”
The voter ID law, which Texas’ Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, swiftly enacted this summer as soon as the Supreme Court ruled that “states with a history of racially-discriminatory voting practices” don’t need federal approval for new voting changes, requires that registered voters in the state present a valid government-issued photo ID at their polling place. The law has been criticized for its potential to alienate low-income Texans, people of color, and women voters who may not have photo identification that exactly matches their voter registration cards.
County officials told Rewire that the overwhelming majority of new voter cards that include the confusing former names (93,282 out of 98,834 total in Travis County) are being issued to registered Texas voters who selected female as their gender.
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While the cards have caused alarm, election officials told Rewire that as long as polling officials know how to read the new voting cards, everything should go smoothly. That is, as long as poll workers know that the orange “former name” box is only there as a reference, while the name in the white box is the name that will be used on voting rolls for comparison to a photo ID, voters should have no problem casting their ballots.
“We’re glad that people are looking at voter registration certificates carefully,” said Travis County tax office spokesperson Tiffany Seward. “We want them to look at this information, and we want them to call us with questions. We’re happy to help people fix their names.”
But Austinite Ashli McKee, who alerted local activists to the voting card confusion late last week, tells Rewire in an email interview that she remains concerned about name-related issues popping up at the polls.
McKee’s worry: that when it comes time for her to vote, polling officials will expect her photo ID to include her maiden name, Cooper, even though the name on the orange side of her registration card, Ashli Jean Cooper McKee, was never McKee’s legal name at all. On the other side of McKee’s card, her legal last name, changed after she married her husband, matches her photo identification. Cooper is nowhere to be found, since it is not her legal name.
A provision of the new law, added via amendment by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), was meant to address just this kind of confusion and gives poll workers the ability to decide whether a voter’s registered name is “substantially similar” to the one on their photo identification, rather than an exact match.
Voters who have these “substantially similar” names can sign affidavits certifying their own identities, but McKee says that also makes her nervous, and creates unnecessary confusion.
“I should not have to have the anxiety of whether or not that’s going to happen when I go to vote,” said McKee, noting that she’s fortunate that her job allows her to call election officials for answers and clarifications during business hours and that others may not have the time or the ability to get their concerns sorted out.
At Travis County, Seward told Rewire that voters who want to remove the former names from their voter registration cards can return their cards with a note about the requested change written on the back, or they can can do so online. However, the change form requires voters to leave any former names blank if they want them to disappear from their voter registration cards. That puts Texans like McKee in an awkward position: knowingly sign, under penalty of perjury, a form that says she has no former names—not even a maiden name—or carry a voter registration card that lists a name she never used, legally or otherwise.
“With all this additional confusion and the anxiety when heading to the polling place,” said McKee, “I know many people just won’t bother, or will try and give up when it takes time and energy. And that’s not just really sad, but seems to be the point of all this.”
Calls to a number of other high-population Texas county voting departments weren’t immediately returned. It is unclear at this point how many total Texas voters may want to change former names on their certification cards, though if population breakdowns are similar, it may number in the tens of thousands for highly populated areas.
The Dallas Morning News has found that, according to records obtained from the attorney general’s office, the new voter ID law would have prevented a total of four cases of voter fraud over the course of the last nine years.