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Texas Department of Public Safety

If no one owns the problem then no one will fix it

Reading this Chron story about the problem of voter registrations done via the Department of Public Safety, it’s clear why this is an ongoing issue.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Neither the DPS nor the secretary of state tracks motor voter complaints. Nor can state officials say whether any individual offices or workers process abnormally low numbers of new drivers’ voter applications, DPS officials said.

Unexplained dips sometimes show up in monthly motor voter registration statistics, the Chronicle found in its analysis of registration data from the secretary of state. For example, only 41 Fort Bend voters registered or updated registrations via the DPS in May 2012 – compared with 913 in April and 1,402 in June, according to data gathered by the secretary of state.

Spokesmen for DPS and the secretary of state recommended that anyone who fails to get their voting cards within 30 days after attempting to register call state or local election officials.

[…]

Former Harris County clerk Beverly Kaufman often heard similar complaints during her years overseeing elections. “The voter registration end of the deal is not a priority of the clerks,” Kaufman said. “It sounds to me like the secretary of state could play a key role in getting everyone around the table and addressing that issue.”

[Fort Bend County Voter Registrar John] Oldham said he’s long been concerned about voter confusion over a two-step process that voters use when they renew their drivers’ license via a DPS website, which then links them separately to the secretary of state site to update their voter registration.

He said he hasn’t heard as many complaints from voters who attempted to register in person at a DPS office, though he dealt with similar issues back when he worked on elections in Illinois.

“The acceptance of voter registration among (state) agencies varies a lot because most of them don’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s an annoyance to them – some are excited about it, some don’t care … you have to assume they’re doing it. Because it’s the law.”

Very simply, nobody owns this. The DPS and the Secretary of State don’t see it as a priority, or they’d at least be able to comment on why the number of registrations processed can vary so wildly from month to month. Rick Perry has no reason to care about this, so he’s sure not going to make them make it a priority. The best that could happen at this time would be for a legislator who has the ability to stick it to DPS or the SOS in the budget to take this up as a cause and bludgeon these two agencies into doing an audit or something. But until a Secretary of State is appointed who wants to fix this and implement a better process with better technology – and fight for the budgetary means to do it – we’ll hear the same stories in 2014 and 2016.

Poli Sci profs against voter ID

Rice political science professor Mark Jones writes an op-ed in the Chron that does a thorough job of dissecting Texas’ contentious voter ID law.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Nearly one out of every three Texas counties lacks an operational DPS office, and no office is open after 6 p.m. or on weekends. DPS offices in the largest urban counties are limited in number, with the closest location often a substantial distance from the home of many residents. For instance, not one of the DPS offices in Harris County is inside the 610 Loop. Additionally, most DPS offices are poorly served by mass transit, a significant issue given that a large proportion of those in need of an EIC lack a driver’s license. Finally, waits of two to three hours are not uncommon at DPS offices.

The level of access to DPS offices in Texas contrasts markedly with that in Indiana, whose 2005 photo identification law was determined to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. Every Indiana county has at least one Bureau of Motor Vehicles office, and those offices are generally open for four hours on Saturday. Indiana’s most populous county (Marion) has 12 offices for the 911,000 inhabitants residing within its 396 square miles, one office more than Harris County, which has a population (4.181 million) and land area (1,704 square miles) more than four times that of Marion County.

Ironically, SB 14 does not address the most common type of voting malfeasance in Texas: mail-in ballot fraud. While rare, it nonetheless is a problem of equal, if not greater, concern than voter impersonation fraud. And yet, SB 14 does nothing to combat it, neglecting to follow the example of a half -dozen states that mandate a voter’s signature on the mail-in ballot envelope be verified by a notary public or two witnesses. Under SB 14, a photo ID is not required to vote by mail.

When crafting SB 14, lawmakers likely determined that the negligible benefits in fraud prevention obtained by enhancing the integrity of the mail-in ballot process paled in comparison to the negative impact this reform would have on Texans, primarily those 65 and older, by making voting by mail more difficult for some and leading others to refrain from casting a ballot altogether. However, this same logic holds for SB 14’s photo ID requirement, which provides a miniscule enhancement in electoral integrity at the cost of placing even more onerous demands on a larger number of Texans.

Of course, as Jones notes, those who vote by mail are disproportionately Anglo and Republican, so naturally the Lege wasn’t interested in adding any obstacles to them voting. The bit about Indiana and its preponderance of DPS offices is something I didn’t know, and it adds another layer to the disingenuousness of Texas’ claims that voter ID isn’t so bad because of how it has gone in Indiana. I hope the Justice Department made all this plain to the judges. Anyway, also recently on the op-ed pages we had this piece in the Statesman by UT-Pan Am poli sci prof Jessica Lavariega Monforti, who mostly rounds up and recaps research on the deleterious effects of voter ID from the Brennan Center, and this Express News column by Ricardo Pimental making the obvious but insufficiently acknowledged point that voter ID is all about voter suppression. Check ’em out.

Our high maintenance Governor

Ka-ching!

This corndog brought to you at taxpayer expense

Texans have been billed $2.2 million in out-of-state travel expenses for Gov. Rick Perry’s security detail since his November 2010 re-election, including his failed presidential bid and other trips ranging from vacations to state business and political gatherings, according to updated figures released Friday.

The new report released by the Texas Department of Public Safety freshly tallies $199,060.07 in expenses for Perry’s security detail within and outside Texas, with most for out-of-state trips.

The report covers the March-May fiscal quarter. It also includes expenses dating back to the September start of the fiscal year that came in after earlier reports were compiled.

[…]

Perry’s direct travel costs generally are paid by his campaign, but expenses for his security detail are paid mainly through the state highway fund, which includes proceeds from the state gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees.

Travel costs in the report include such items as airfare, rental car, food and lodging.

The quarterly report doesn’t include overtime for Perry’s security detail, which totaled more than $2.8 million from November 2010 through February. The overtime total includes trips within and outside of Texas.

The largest recent travel expense tallied in the report was a trip to San Diego, Calif., for $27,143.76.

[…]

“It seems like everybody else is tightening their belt, except for him,” said state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, House Democratic Caucus leader, referring to state budget cuts and the potential of more to come. “If he’s asking for us to tighten our belts, he needs to look for a few notches himself,” Farrar said.

Perry and his staff have repeatedly turned aside the idea that he should cover the security costs, saying Perry is governor wherever he is and noting that previous governors also had security.

I do agree that governors travel as part of their jobs, and that they are entitled to security when they travel. It’s appropriate for those expenses to be paid by the state, and frankly that’s far superior to his trips being funded solely by campaign contributors. We have enough of a pay to play culture in our politics as it is, thank very much. That said, it is also the case that we are, as the Governor himself likes to proclaim loudly, in lean times that call for sacrifices and cutbacks. It would be nice if Perry could lead by example for once in his life and save us all a bit of money by travelling less often. The private sector uses virtual conference rooms, NetMeeting, Skype, Office Communicator, stuff like that as low-cost substitutes for travel. Perhaps the Governor’s office should look into that.

Amnesty for the Driver Responsibility surcharges

Scott Henson has a nice op-ed in the DMN about implementing a real amnesty program for those who cannot afford to pay Driver Responsibility surcharges and can’t get their licenses back until they do.

In 2007, the Legislature gave the Department of Public Safety’s governing body, the Public Safety Commission, a mandate and broad authority to fix the program. Last year lawmakers required the agency to establish an indigency program. The safety commission recently published rules in the Texas Register to create just that and will hold a public hearing regarding them at the Capitol on Monday.

But the proposed changes don’t go nearly far enough, and the safety commission has authority to more substantially revamp the program to mitigate its most significant problems. It should do so.

The most gaping omission: The Department of Public Safety failed to propose an “amnesty” program to relieve the backlog of 1.2 million drivers who’ve already defaulted on the surcharge. This not only is bad public policy, encouraging 1.2 million drivers to remain unlicensed and uninsured, it actually leaves money on the table for the state. Potentially a lot of it.

If just one-third of them participated in a one-time amnesty program that let them get their license reinstated for, say, $250 (many owe thousands in back surcharges), it could generate up to $100 million in the near term.

That sure would be nice to have at a time like this, wouldn’t it? Go read the whole thing.

Stop for the school buses

My route to and from work takes me through a couple of school zones, and every now and then I wind up behind a school bus and have to stop when it pulls over to discharge some riders. I think everybody knows that when you are behind a school bus and it stops, you need to stop as well, but did you know that the same is true if you’re on the opposite side of the street and you’re coming towards the bus? Well, if you didn’t know that, your ignorance could cost you.

This week, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers throughout the state are participating in a nationwide effort to keep schoolchildren safe. Troopers are riding on school buses and patrolling bus stops looking for violators as part of National School Bus Safety Week, which [ran though Friday].

In addition to troopers and Precinct 1 Constable deputies in Montgomery County, troopers in Harris County are also taking part in the safety program.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: When you see a school bus pull over to the curb, and its lights start blinking, stop. The exception is if you’re on the opposite side of a street that has a barrier in the middle – I presume a median counts, but as the story notes, a two-way turning lane does not. On my normal commute there are no such roads, so stopping is always the correct answer.

The sting part of this effort is now over, but that doesn’t mean you can zip by again. Putting aside the fact that it’s the right thing to do and not doing it puts kids in danger, police officers have been known to sit in school zones at other times as well.

Now here’s a little thought experiment for you. Suppose some entity decided to equip its school buses with cameras. These cameras turn on when the buses stop to pick up or drop off kids – which is to say, during the time when the buses’ red lights are blinking and vehicles are required by law to stop – and turn off when the bus doors close and the red lights stop blinking. If a vehicle is filmed going past the bus, on a road with no barrier, the owner of the car is sent a ticket, which can be appealed through a traffic court. Would you consider that to be a valid enforcement mechanism, or would you insist that the only legitimate way to enforce this law is by having a police officer catch people in the act? I’m just curious.

Dems seek repeal of new DPS rules

We didn’t have any voter ID action yesterday, but we did have this.

Some Democratic lawmakers joined by Texas residents who have had trouble getting drivers’ licenses under new Department of Public Safety rules pushed Monday for legislation that would undo a policy they say harms U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, of San Antonio, said the DPS overstepped its authority by creating new identification rules last fall for drivers’ license applicants without getting approval from the Legislature.

“It’s far-reaching, it’s completely uncalled for and it’s completely unnecessary,” she said.

McClendon filed a bill that went before a House committee on Monday to stop the policy. Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini, of Laredo, filed an identical proposal in the Senate.

McClendon’s bill is HB1278; Zaffirini’s is SB2261.

Under the new DPS rules, people seeking drivers’ licenses who aren’t U.S. citizens must show they are in the country legally and that their immigration documents don’t expire within six months. DPS also changed the look of the licenses given to legal residents and added the designation “temporary visitor” on the card.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry supports the DPS rules, which took effect Oct. 1. His spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, said the rule change “ensures public safety and national security.” She said the identification requirement is not unreasonable and shows that applicants are who they say they are.

The Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, said it wanted the change to enhance security and deter fraud. DPS officials say the change brings Texas closer to compliance with the impending federal REAL ID Act launched after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and governing drivers’ license security.

The REAL ID act is unpopular with many states, and McClendon said it amounts to an unfunded mandate.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, said some elderly Texans do not have birth certificates. He specifically mentioned a 98-year-old woman in Fort Worth, whose original certificate burned in a courthouse fire years ago. Other U.S. citizens who were delivered by midwives don’t have birth certificates, he said.

We’ve already heard about Bessie Jenkins Foster. State Rep. Joe Farias said at the hearing that he has no birth certificate, because he was born at home. This is a big deal, because it’s not so easy to get a birth certificate if you don’t already have one. And that has implications for – you guessed it – voter ID.

To get a Texas photo ID for the first time, you have to provide a birth certificate. A certified copy will cost you 22 smackeroos (Fraser’s bill does not waive that fee), if you can manage to get one at all.

I asked DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange if there was any way to get a Texas photo ID without a birth certificate. She answered, “We gotta know who you are.”

Getting a birth certificate so you can get a photo ID is a Catch 22 at the Texas Department of State Health Services. To get a copy of your birth certificate, you need to submit a copy of your photo ID. Technically, if you don’t have an ID card, the DSHS Web site says you can submit an immediate family member’s photo ID, or copies of two documents bearing your name, one with a signature. But the application http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/vs/reqproc/forms/vs142.3.pdf for a birth certificate reads, in bold caps, “APPLICATIONS WITHOUT PHOTO ID WILL NOT BE PROCESSED.”

Summary: Getting a photo ID in Texas requires a birth certificate … which requires a photo ID … which requires a birth certificate … which requires a photo ID … and if you manage to stumble across the information about the technicality allowing alternative documentation, it’ll still take DSHS 6 – 8 weeks to process your request if you pay with a check or money order … by which time it may be too late to vote.

Pretty nifty little trick, isn’t it? For a party that claims to hate big government, they sure do seem to like big bureaucracy. As the story notes, there are two lawsuits pending over the new DPS rules. I don’t expect these bills to pass, so in the end I presume it will be the courts that settle this.

Another lawsuit filed against DPS

That makes two such suits over the new DPS policy of verifying residency status in order to get a drivers license.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the lawsuit in state district court in Austin. It’s on behalf of three men with permission to work in the country and a Lewisville landscaping business that employs seasonal foreign workers through a federal program.

The men are landscaping workers in North Texas who need to drive as part of their job but could not obtain a Texas driver’s license under the new DPS policies because their visas are valid for only 10 months.

DPS rules exclude people from receiving driver’s licenses if they have a visa for less than one year or have less than six months remaining on it, MALDEF said.

Officials also changed the appearance of driver’s licenses for persons with legal permission to be in the U.S. so that they differ from licenses given to citizens and green card holders.

MALDEF contends the Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, exceeded its authority and did not have Legislative approval to adopt the rules.

Another suit had been filed two weeks ago by the Texas Civil Rights Project on the grounds that the new rules were discriminatory. At the very least, we know they’re causing all kinds of grief for plenty of folks whose paperwork is all in order. I’d bet someone will win an injunction, at least for the time being, to suspend these new procedures.