Most of the drama was saved for another day in the Texas Senate after the first installment of the planned debate over the contentious voter ID bill was postponed.
Senate Democrats did their best, however, to derail Republicans’ attempts to fast track the issue, which Gov. Rick Perry declared an emergency item last week. The designation allows the bill to be voted on by members during the first 60 days of the session.
Members of the Senate were expected to hear invited testimony today concerning the bill today but decided to only lay out the procedural rules for how to proceed with Senate Bill 14, which would require showing a photo ID before a ballot is cast. That procedure includes the Senate gaveling in as a committee of the whole to take up the issue. The debate on the actual bill, authored by Horseshoe Bay Republican Troy Fraser, will begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who was designated by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst last week as the chairman of the committee of the whole, was grilled by Democrat Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, about why, with a budget deficit in the billions, the issue should be considered an emergency.
“I’m just at a loss. We just talked bout the budget being so critical, why are we spending our time on this?” Whitmire asked of Duncan.
Duncan said the designation was made by the governor and refused to speak for him, but did offer his own insight about why it should be taken up early.
“We are not in the throes of committee hearings where other business can be delayed. The timing now will allow members of this body to focus on this issue … and allow us to move forward on other legislation,” he said.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, asked to be recognized for a motion to delay adopting the procedural rules for a week, arguing that the notice senators received on Thursday about today’s events wasn’t enough for “senators in affected communities that would be impacted most” by the law. Following some debate about whether the motion should be made to the committee or the senate, it was never made.
After arguments that voter impersonation or fraud occurs less frequently than Republicans allege (the same argument made two years ago) the Senate eventually adopted the procedural rules. The vote was divided along party lines, Republicans for and Democrats against.
Asked how long he thought the debate would last, Dewhurst joked he joined an “office pool” set up to determine just that, but told reporters he assumed the debate would end by 9 p.m. tomorrow because discussions have been in the works with Democrats for months.
He also touted a provision of the bill that would provide state assistance for lower income voters that needed to purchase an ID to vote and said that in states with similar laws, voter turnout has actually increased.
Before the vote was even taken lawmakers and interest groups who oppose to the law began circulating news releases arguing the legislation should be placed low, if at all, on lawmakers' radars. “If voter fraud does exist, those perpetrating the fraud should be punished to the greatest extent of the law. Right now, there is no evidence that voter impersonation is occurring in our state,” state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said in a statement. "Instead of disenfranchising voters, we need to empower people to participate in the democratic process, to register and to vote."
Added the Texas Civil Rights Project, an Austin-based advocacy organization: “Those who would effectively pay the most would be elderly people and those with disabilities, who have no driver’s license. The cost also falls heavier on low-income and poor people. In the end, this legislation disenfranchises people, which clearly must be its aim.”