ROCKSPRINGS, Texas – Residents in rural areas of Texas may have to drive up to an hour to obtain a driver’s license – one of the few IDs the state accepts from voters, according to records obtained from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Texas has 254 counties, but 74 lack a driver’s license office. There are eight new driver’s license offices opening this year in counties that don’t have one, department spokesman Tom Vinger said.
Texas has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, where voters are required to present a government-issued ID to vote. The law went into effect in 2013 after the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states, including Texas, to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws. Some eligible forms of identification include a Texas driver’s license, a passport or a license to carry a handgun.
Civil rights groups challenged the law, which is now pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The Supreme Court gave the 15 judges a July 20 deadline to rule on whether the law is a proper way to combat voter fraud or if it disenfranchises minority voters. Opponents of the law argue that it is less likely elderly, poor and minority voters will have the proper forms of identification, including a driver’s license, which is perhaps the most common form of identification.
A Texas resident must physically go to a driver’s license office to obtain a license for the first time. Residents can renew their license online, but they must renew in person every other time to update their photo.
The DPS has a lot of ground to cover to make sure its programs are available to everyone in the huge state, but Vinger said in many cases, a resident may live down the road from the nearest DPS office in another county.
“An individual’s home can be located near a driver license office that is not actually in their county of residence,” he said in an email.
There is no driver’s license office in Edwards County, which has a population of 1,478, and no plans to open an office in the county this year, according to DPS records.
But that makes a long drive for residents in the West Texas town of Rocksprings located in the county. The town has a population of a little more than 1,000 people and has 666 registered voters, according to the Edwards County Tax Assessor Collector. Its residents drive at least an hour to the closest driver’s license office in Del Rio.
In other cases, a county may have a driver’s license office, but residents could still live miles away from it. Residents of Terlingua, a West Texas town near Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, are about an hour and a half away from the only DPS office in the county. There are 516 active voters in the town, according to the Brewster County Tax Assessor Collector.
Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office, said it’s unusual to find a citizen who lives more than a few miles from the nearest driver’s license office, but they may vote by mail without an ID. To be eligible to vote by mail in the state, a voter must be 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county or confined in jail.
According to Vinger, there are additional programs to help Texans who a lack government-issued photo ID. The department began providing free Election Identification Certificates in June 2013 at the county level and through mobile units for voters who don’t have the proper documents to vote.
The certificates are free for a Texas resident who can provide documentation to verify U.S. citizenship and a voter registration card. Officials have released 760 Election Identification Certificates to voters since 2013, according to the DPS.
Follow Nicole Cobler on Twitter @nicolecobler.