Transportation is another hurdle, especially in Texas, where the nearest ID office for people in rural areas can be up to 170 miles away. As Harvey tears up infrastructure and floods major highways, it will be even harder for residents to make their way along necessary routes. “Many of the counties [in Texas] don’t have places you can go and get a driver’s license or a state ID, and in order to get that you had to have a birth certificate or social security card,” says Deuel Ross, an Assistant Council at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “It was already very difficult to get those. Given the strain on the state right now, it’s only going to be more difficult.”
The law’s critics argue that it was baseless to begin with. “In Texas, there was never strong evidence [that] there was a problem that needed to be addressed by [S.B. 5],” says Pérez. No evidence has been found of mass voter impersonation. Senators from both political parties, as well as law enforcement officials, have refuted claims of voter fraud. Pérez believes that having focused on voter ID laws instead of passing infrastructure legislation and shoring up rescue services will not reflect well on Texan politicians. “When you have tragedies like [Harvey], it puts in voters’ mouths a bad taste for the tomfoolery of legislators.”
Although the Texas Department of Public Safety announced that it will offer no-cost replacement driver’s licenses and ID cards for those who live in counties that have received a disaster declaration, residents would still need to visit an office in-person. And Gary Bledsoe is skeptical of how this will be enforced. Bledsoe has found that minority voters often face discriminatory hurdles, and worries that black and Latino residents may not find it easy to obtain replacements.
Furthermore, in the storm’s wake, replacing forms of ID “is not the main thing people are worried about right now,” says Ross. “As the [midterm] election approaches in 2018 people may start to think about it, but may not have the months it takes in order to obtain the documentation.”
Though New Orleans’s municipal elections were severely disrupted after Hurricane Katrina—the city’s voting infrastructure was decimated by the hurricane—the state didn’t have to contend with the fallout from voting ID laws. Louisiana’s ID requirements are considered “non-strict.” Nearly anything issued with both a photo and some identifying information qualifies, and voters can simply sign an affidavit if they do not have an ID. Without a strict law, “you don’t have to add an accommodation for dealing with it in the face of a natural disaster,” says Pérez.
Ross, who has worked with families trying to rebuild their lives in the face of fire and flooding, is concerned by how the current political climate and escalating weather events could work in tandem to harm poor communities of color. “Communities affected the most are cities in the south, which are often poorer, more rural, [and predominantly] African American,” he says. “Given that this is now the second major storm here in the U.S. in the last 10 or so years, I’m very worried that this kind of thing could continue to happen, and continue to impact the communities most vulnerable and unable to deal with the burden of having everything in their lives destroyed.”
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