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Texas woman threatened with jail after applying for voter ID

A Texas woman says she was interrogated by police for having a California driver’s license when she applied for a voter ID. The state says IDs are easy to get.
A sign stands outside a polling center at public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)
A sign stands outside a polling center at public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

An Austin, Texas woman told msnbc she was threatened with jail time for having an out-of-state driver’s license when she went to apply for a voter identification card so she could vote under the state’s controversial ID law. She said she was so intimidated she left without getting the ID she needed — and which she'd been trying to get for a year.

RELATED: Supreme Court approves Texas voter ID law

Lynne Messinger’s account highlights the obstacles that some Texans face as they try to obtain a voter ID — despite the state’s assurances that getting one doesn't pose a burden.

Messinger, 62 and a musician, said she brought her birth certificate to a Texas' Department of Public Safety (DPS) office in south Austin Thursday in an effort to get a voter ID. She needs one because Texas’s strict ID law doesn’t accept out-of-state driver’s licenses.

Messinger said she spoke to a clerk at the desk, and explained that she had a California driver’s license. She has houses in both California and Texas and goes back and forth between the two, but decided several years ago to switch her voting residency to Texas.

The clerk left for a few minutes, then told her to take a seat. At that point, Messinger said, a state trooper summoned her into his back office, saying he needed to speak to her. Once inside his office, Messinger said the trooper insisted on seeing all the documentation she had brought, and demanded to know where she lives and pays taxes. He even told her she could be jailed for driving with a California license.* It is illegal to drive in Texas on another state’s driver's license 90 days after moving into the state. 

“It was like a Nazi interrogation about how I cant be driving with a California ID,” Messinger said. “I was completely intimidated and freaked out.” 

The trooper denies threatening jail or arrest during the conversation, according to Summer Blackwell of the DPS. Blackwell said DPS was willing to reach out to Messinger to help her obtain a voter ID.

“I’m from New York originally, and talking to policemen was not like a big deal to me,” Messinger added. “This was scary as hell. There was nothing civil about the way he was talking to me.”

Messinger said she answered the trooper’s questions and eventually was allowed to leave. But by then she was so unnerved that she left without getting her ID, and now doesn’t plan to get one in time to vote.

“I’m well-traveled, I’m not easily intimidated,” she said. “This guy scared the hell out of me. I can just imagine what other people – a little housewife or a Latino or whatever walks in there and this happens to them …”

Adding insult to injury, Messinger said she’d been trying for over a year to get the documents she needed. She first went to a DPS office to get a voter ID last summer, but was turned away because she didn’t have a birth certificate. That led to a months-long process where she frequently spent hours uploading documents in an effort to get a birth certificate from New York, where she was born.  Eventually she succeeded, only to be scared off at the DPS office.

Texas’s voter ID law was struck down earlier this month by a federal judge who ruled it racially discriminatory, but was reinstated for the election thanks to the Supreme Court. The difficulty of obtaining an ID was central to Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’s opinion. The state admitted at trial it had not conducted a public information campaign to publicize the existence of the state IDs it created for those without other photo identification, beyond issuing an English-only press release. At the end of August, the state said it had given out just 279 voter ID cards in the 14 months that it had been issuing them.

RELATED: Election could impact voting rights for 2016

Asked about the incident, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Safety pledged to respond but did not immediately do so.

As for Messinger, she said though she might not vote this year, she’s not taking it sitting down. “I will do everything it takes to do something about what’s going on here, because this is crazy,” she said. “I’m 62 years old. I’ve been voting for a long time, and this is just bullshit.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that it was not illegal to drive in Texas with a California driver's license. In fact, it is illegal to drive in Texas on another state’s driver license 90 days after moving into the state.