By Ed Pilkington
Oct 29, 2014
Eric Kennie is a Texan. He is as Texan as the yucca plants growing outside his house. So Texan that he has never, in his 45 years, travelled outside the state. In fact, he has never even left his native city of Austin. “No sir, not one day. I was born and raised here, only place I know is Austin.”
You might think that more than qualifies Kennie as a citizen of the Lone Star state, entitling him to its most basic rights such as the ability to vote. Not so, according to the state of Texas and its Republican political leadership. On 4 November, when America goes to the polls in the midterm elections, for the first time in his adult life Eric Kennie will not be allowed to participate.
Ever since he turned 18 he has made a point of voting in general elections, having been brought up by his African American parents to think that it is important, part of what he calls “doing the right thing”. He remembers the excitement of voting for Barack Obama in 2008 to help elect the country’s first black president, his grandmother crying tears of joy on election night. “My grandfather and uncle, they used to tell me all the time there will be a black president. I never believed it, never in a million years.”
He voted again for Obama in 2012, and turned out for the 2010 midterm elections in between. But this year is different. Kennie is one of an estimated 600,000 Texans who, though registered to vote, will be unable to do so because they cannot meet photo-identification requirements set out in the state’s new voter-ID law, SB14 .
The law, which has been deemed by the courts to be the strictest of its kind in the US, forces any would-be voter to produce photographic proof of identity at polling stations. It was justified by Governor Rick Perry and the Republican chiefs in the state legislature as a means of combatting electoral fraud in a state where in the past 10 years some 20m votes have been cast, yet only two cases of voter impersonation have been prosecuted to conviction.
Earlier this month a federal district judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, struck down the law, slamming it as a cynical ploy on the part of Republicans to fend off the growing strength of the minority electorate in Texas by “suppressing the overwhelmingly Democratic votes of African Americans and Latinos”. She linked SB14 to a long history of racial discrimination in state elections spanning back generations, and declared the new law to be an unconstitutional poll tax.
But last week, in the early hours of 18 October, when most Texans were sleeping, the US supreme court snuck out a one-line judgment that allowed the voter ID restrictions to be applied this election cycle. Without any explanation, a majority of the justices effectively threw Eric Kennie and many thousands of others like him – particularly black, Hispanic and low-income Texans – into a state of democratic limbo.
“This is the first time the courts have allowed a law that actually keeps people from voting to go into effect, even though a judge found it was passed for the purpose of making it harder for minorities to vote,” said Wendy Weiser, head of the democracy programme at the Brennan Centre for Justice.
Before SB14 came into effect, Kennie was able to vote by simply showing a voter registration card posted to his home address. Under the vastly more stringent demands of the new law, he must take with him to the polling station one of six forms of identification bearing his photograph. The problem is, he doesn’t have any of the six and there’s no way he’s going to be able to acquire one any time soon.
The first of the six forms of ID accepted under SB14 is a US passport. No luck there. What would someone who has never even crossed the city boundary of Austin do with a passport?
The second is a US military ID card, but Kennie has never been in the military. The third is a driving licence, but he doesn’t have a car and has never possessed a driving licence.
The fourth is a license to carry a concealed handgun. “I did have my own gun when I was about 14 or 15,” he said, “but that was 30 years ago.” The fifth is a citizenship certificate, and no, he doesn’t have that either.
And then there’s the sixth method of identification allowed under the law. It’s a new form of photo-ID card created specifically for voting under SB14, known as an election identification certificate (EIC).
To get an EIC, Kennie needs to be able to show the Texas department of public safety (DPS) other forms of documentation that satisfy them as to his identity. He presented them with his old personal ID card – issued by the DPS itself and with his photo on it – but because it is more than 60 days expired (it ran out in 2000) they didn’t accept it. Next he showed them an electricity bill, and after that a cable TV bill, but on each occasion they said it didn’t cut muster and turned him away.
Each trip to the DPS office involved taking three buses, a journey that can stretch to a couple of hours. Then he had to stand in line, waiting for up to a further three hours to be seen, before finally making another two-hour schlep home.
In one of his trips to the DPS last year they told him he needed to get hold of a copy of his birth certificate as the only remaining way he could meet the requirements and get his EIC. That meant going on yet another three-bus trek to the official records office in a different part of town.
The cost of acquiring a birth certificate in Texas is $23, which may not sound much but it is to Kennie. He is poor, like many of the up to 600,000 Texans caught in the current voter ID trap.
He works as a “scrapper”, foraging in people’s garbage to collect cans, bottles and metal for recycling. Sometimes he comes across trinkets that he can restore. There are several chime bells dangling in the porch of his house, and a cordon of wooden Nutcracker dolls standing guard by the front door. A porcelain model of a laughing pig is staked quizzically on a poll by the drive.
On a usual day he makes about $15 to $20 from recycling the cans and other scrap. On a good day – after a holiday like Valentine’s Day or Easter when people consume more – his earnings can rise to as much as $40 a day. He has no bank account or credit cards, and no savings – he only deals with cans and cash.
I asked him how much $23 means to him. His said what he does when he feels flush with money is decide to splurge on a special treat for himself and his friends. “I do chicken Tuesday at Popeyes.”
What’s that, I asked.
“Two pieces of fried chicken for 99 cents – one dollar seven with tax. When things are good I might get five or 10 boxes and hand them out to my neighbours.”
So what passes as a reckless binge for Eric Kennie – a splurge on about $10 worth of fried chicken – is less than half of what he spent getting himself a copy of his birth certificate.
The outcome was perhaps predictable by now: the birth certificate wasn’t up to scratch either. When he took it to the DPS (another three buses there, three buses back, another two hours waiting in line) they told him that the name on the birth certificate didn’t match the name on his voter registration card. The birth certificate has him down as Eric Caruthers – his mother’s maiden name – even though his parents were married at the time he was born.
I asked Kennie how it felt having been through so many hoops only to be told that he still couldn’t vote because of a bureaucratic cock-up that occurred 45 years ago. “It makes me hurt deep down inside, it really do,” he said.
Kennie said he would like the people who came up with the idea of SB14 to put themselves in his shoes, like Eddie Murphy in the movie Trading Places. “Let me change identity with them for a whole day. Let them deal as me, Eric Kennie, and let me take their name. Then see how they feel. I think they’d see things differently then. I guarantee you, they wouldn’t make it to the end of the day.”
It is small consolation, but Kennie is not alone. African Americans and low-income people are among the hardest hit by SB14, with research showing that black voters are three times more likely than whites to lack the identification requirements obligated under the new law.
Abbie Kamin of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan voting rights and campaign finance organization that is currently trying to help people in Houston gain photo IDs so they can vote, said that they had been contacted by several people this week who had been turned away from early voting polling stations because they could not produce valid photo ID. She had also been made aware of many people who had decided not to vote at all this election cycle because they found the impediments just too daunting.
Kamin said she had dealt with cases where voters were afraid to go to the DPS to apply for an EIC because they had driving-related violations and feared being arrested. One older man was so determined to vote he told her he was prepared to be taken into custody, but decided against it because he was diabetic and feared running out of insulin while in detention.
“What’s happening here is that the state of Texas is using tax dollars consciously to suppress their own voters. It’s absolutely about intimidation,” Kamin said.
At the headquarters of the Texas Democratic party in Austin, the voter protection director Sondra Haltom spends hours on the phone every day trying to help individuals negotiate the Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze that SB14 has created. She said she was finding that many older people are struggling because they have no birth certificates – a common problem for those from rural parts of Texas where births used to be handled by midwives and records were scanty.
Students are also bumping up against the lack of student ID cards on the list of approved identification under the voter-ID law. On Wednesday, Haltom dedicated several hours dealing with the case of a man from the Dallas area who had fallen into a classic catch-22. He didn’t have a photo-ID card so he went to ask for a copy of his birth certificate, only to be told – inaccurately – that he couldn’t get his birth certificate without a valid photo ID.
Or he could swallow his pride and take up the identity given on his birth certificate – turning himself into Eric Caruthers. He doesn’t want to do that – he said it would make his deceased father “turn in his grave”. It would also be profoundly ironic: he would in effect be impersonating someone else in order to get around a law ostensibly designed to root out impersonation at the polls.In Eric Kennie’s case, there is no clear way out of the morass. He could go to court and ask for the name on his birth certificate to be changed to correct the error, but that would take hiring a lawyer for a fee that he could not afford.
The one thing he is not prepared to do is to give up the fight. Though he has admitted defeat this election cycle, he is determined to find a way through the mess and regain his vote.
“I do need to vote, I really do,” he said. “It’s too late for me, but this is for the next generation. They need us to get out the people who harm us and bring in folk who will make things a little better. So I’m going to keep on. I’m going to stay focused, roll with the punches and do what I got to do.”