Mar. 24, 2011 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) — Voter ID legislation passed the Texas House along party lines late Wednesday, with supporters saying the bill protects the integrity of the electoral process, and critics saying it would disenfranchise Hispanic, black and low-income voters.
The bill requires voters to present valid photo identification at the polls, a prerequisite that currently doesn’t exist in Texas despite Republican-backed attempts to implement it in 2009. But with the GOP holding a clear majority in both chambers of the Legislature after November’s election, Gov. Rick Perry fast-tracked the legislation by declaring it an emergency item and clearing the way for its eventual passage.
Republican supporters say the bill prevents voter fraud by keeping ineligible voters from casting ballots and restores public confidence in election results. But Democrats, including most of the Rio Grande Valley delegation, said the bill doesn’t address the primary cause of voter fraud: mail-in ballots, which account for nearly 70 percent voter-fraud probes conducted by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Democrats also say the bill would suppress voter turnout among minorities by creating an obstacle to the right to vote.
State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, said the “stringent” bill will further drive down turnout in Hidalgo County, where 90 percent of the population is Hispanic and only 19 percent of registered voters participated in March’s primary.
“No matter how much Republicans say it’s not going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Martinez said. “Voter ID is going to suppress voter turnout.”
“There are a variety of ways they don’t make it easy to vote because the bill is very restrictive on what they allow,” said Martinez, who momentarily derailed the legislation Monday using a parliamentarian tactic.
Both Republican and Democratic legislators trotted out familiar arguments during 12 hours of partisan debate Wednesday. House Democrats offered up more than 50 amendments, most of which were struck down by the Republican supermajority. Republicans themselves grew exasperated after multiple attempts to derail the bill through points of order, a parliamentarian tactic.
The legislation, which already cleared the Senate, allows voters to present a driver’s license, military ID, passport or concealed handgun license to vote.
Not accepted are other forms of government-issued IDs or student IDs.
State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, said voter ID requirements included in the bill are the most restrictive in the nation and will disenfranchise many minority voters who cannot afford to take time off work, get transportation or drive long distances to secure a photo ID. Gonzales said other states which implemented voter ID laws have seen a reduction in voter turnout among blacks and Hispanics.
Luis Figueroa, a staff attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, said Texas legislators will also pass voter ID legislation without first conducting a study to determine its impact on turnout.
A Brennan Center for Justice report found up to 12 percent of eligible voters nationwide lack a photo ID — with a higher percentage among seniors, minorities, low-income voters and students. Although the legislation allows voters to obtain a free ID at any Department of Public Safety office, there are no DPS offices in nearly one-third of Texas counties.
“A free ID isn’t always free because of the time you spend getting it and the costs associated with the documents you need to get the identification,” Figueroa said. “Then if somebody doesn’t have the correct identification for whatever reason, the bill doesn’t have any safeguards for that eligible voter.”
Valley Democrats also said the bill doesn’t do anything to address voter fraud. Almost all evidence of voter fraud involves mail-in ballots, but the bill only addresses voter impersonation at the polls.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, whose own voter fraud investigations have yielded few convictions, said the voter ID bill “doesn’t address anything of consequence” in voter fraud. If anything, he said, the bill is likely to drive any fraud further into mail-in ballots where illegal activity is harder to catch.
But asking voters to show photo identification can renew confidence in elections by residents in communities where fraud is believed to be widespread, said Virginia Townsend, a member of the OWLS, a government watchdog group that traveled to Austin to testify in support of the bill.
“For us, a picture ID is nothing but a simple thing. You have to show a picture ID for cashing a check or getting a Social Security card,” Townsend said. “We don’t understand what the big deal is about having to show it.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4424.
Newstex ID: KRTB-0120-101978755