Know Your Voting Rights: Houston Attorney Abbie Kamin Stresses Need for More Voter Education
By David Goldberg
When Abbie Kamin was 13, she felt a call to action. While on a trip to Washington DC with the Post Oak School, Kamin convinced her teachers to drop the pre-planned activities for the day and take their middle-school group to protest—at the Supreme Court. It was December 2000, and Bush v. Gore was being decided. “It was the first time I ever saw a massive protest and social action taking place, and it changed my life forever,” Kamin says. “2000 was the perfect example of an election where every person’s vote mattered, and there was something terribly wrong with the election system.”
Now, as an attorney at Brazil & Dunn, the 29-year-old firebrand works to defend the rights of Texans whose ability to vote has been obstructed by restrictive laws. With Election Day looming in November, Kamin once again faces an election that could change the identity of the nation. This time, she and her associates are preparing to galvanize Texas voters who have been most affected by the state’s discriminatory laws: people of color and transgender citizens. Based on recent developments at the municipal and state level, Kamin’s work is needed now more than ever.
In early August, Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals denied a transman’s request to change his assigned gender on his driver’s license. Though the petitioner was able to at least change his name on the ID, he cannot confirm his true gender in the eyes of the state, and he risks being denied access to vote in November, thanks to absurd voter laws that Texas lawmakers enacted in 2011.
After a year in which right-wing organizers effectively dismantled the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and the safety of minority Americans is more threatened than ever by a discriminatory GOP, conservative politicians now wish to block trans Houstonians and people of color from exercising the definitive right of all Americans—the right to vote.
State laws require voters to present one of seven forms of photo ID, such as a passport or driver’s license. While such demands don’t sound too severe, they can present endless complications to low-income voters, or to trans voters whose gender identity cannot be fully validated by the state. Texans who aren’t able to provide up-to-date ID must endure a labyrinth of bureaucratic nonsense to vote at the polls. For example, if voters cannot provide an up-to-date driver’s license, they must reapply at the Department of Public Safety using secondary documents, including a birth certificate. And for those who don’t have birth certificates, the complications double.
“I would challenge anybody to navigate the system that has been set up [without] a car or a birth certificate or $300 to spend,” Kamin says. “It’s not as easy as one would think if you don’t have all the underlying documents that are required.”
In 2014, Kamin worked with an engineer named Anthony Settles, who was blocked from voting because his name was changed in 1964 when he was 14. Because the clerk’s office was not able to locate his birth certificate, Settles was left cornered and disenfranchised. And while the idea that this bureaucratic morass could change election outcomes may seem like a wild conspiracy theory, evidence in a 2011 lawsuit indicated that nearly 600,000 Texans (mostly people of color) would not be able to vote under the strict laws.
“[Republicans] knew exactly what they were doing when they passed this law, and they were highly effective at doing it,” Kamin says. “They wanted to diminish and suppress the minority vote, because minorities in this state tend to vote for Democrats. And they use fear tactics to drive discrimination, and that’s not what our state is. Houston is the most diverse city in the country. The laws that are being passed at the state level do not represent what our city is about.”
So for the estimated 125,000 trans Texans, voting booths have become a major source of anxiety. In order to confirm one’s gender on a state ID, a trans person would have to provide the DMV or DPS with a court order verifying that they completed gender confirmation surgery. Those who cannot afford surgery or don’t want it could be in trouble. And even if their IDs pass muster in the eyes of the state, they still face uncomfortable questioning or confrontation from poll officials.
Fortunately, Texas finally took a step forward—or, at least, one less step backward—in late August, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit passed a motion to relax the state’s brutally harsh law. If that court order is enacted without issue—which is unlikely—Texas voters without necessary ID could present alternative documents such as bank statements to prove their identities, and sign affidavits admitting that they had difficulty obtaining the required forms of identification.
But Kamin fears that even if voting requirements are fully relaxed, it may be too late for Latino, black, and trans voters to learn their rights and get to the polls. “Okay, the law has changed,” she says. “But how much public education is the state going to pay for? How much training is the state going to implement for poll workers? There’s already been so much confusion with the law. Now to change it again to make it easier to vote is great, but we’ll not be successful unless the state puts the money and education and training into it. It’s a scare tactic and an intimidation tactic. There is evidence that people didn’t go to the polls because they didn’t think they had the right ID, even though they did.”
If the state government is unwilling to educate its voters about their rights, the best thing for those voters is to educate themselves. To learn which documents are required in this November’s election, voters should check the Department of Public Safety site at dps.texas.gov. Trans voters should check the National Center for Transgender Equality site at transequality.org.
As for Kamin, she will continue to fight the election laws and try to convince minority Texans that their voices count. “When you [suffer discrimination] based on your race, or have an additional hurtle to overcome based on your gender, I cannot imagine what that is like,” she says. “People say that they feel like their state and their country don’t want them and that they’re not accepted. What I’m committed to is making sure that not only is everyone accepted, but that everyone has equal rights in this country. Your rights are your rights, and they are equal under the law.”
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.