Few Obstacles Face Voter ID in the Legislature

Both sides cite stats and research papers to support their positions, with Democrats saying the photo voter ID law will suppress minority voting, and Republicans saying it won't do anything but stop fraud. Whatever it is, it's on its way into the law books.

When San Antonio Sen. Gregory Luna, a Democrat, was dying in 1999, he got the lieutenant governor at the time — Rick Perry — to agree to give him 24 hours notice before any Senate vote on a public school voucher bill Luna opposed. He would get to Austin, he said then, to be the deciding vote against that legislation.

This absent-senator issue came up again in 2007, when Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, tried to get the same deal from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Gallegos was recovering from a liver transplant and was in position to be the deciding vote against that session's version of the photo voter ID bill. Dewhurst said he'd do it, but only once, writing Gallegos a letter at the time that he would be "happy to provide you with 24 hours notice one time for a vote on a single piece of legislation you designate in writing."

Gallegos ended up spending part of the session in a hospital bed in a room connected to the Senate chamber so he'd be on hand if the vote came up.

Those war stories came back after the Senate's initial approval of the voter ID bill. Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, had the flu and wasn't in the room when the votes were cast by the Senate's Committee of the Whole last week. But his vote in favor of the bill was counted anyway, by what Dewhurst said was mutual agreement of the senators.

Hegar's wasn't the deciding vote by a long shot, but it's not every day that a voter fraud bill advances in the Legislature with the vote of a senator who's not even on the premises. Irony aside, it sets a precedent that, like the Luna and Gallego exceptions, will come up again when the Senate majority finds itself stuck between something it wants to do and its own two-thirds rule.

Requiring Texans to prove they are who they say they are before voting is still a controversial issue, but it's got an easy flight path in the current Legislature. It stalled in the House two years ago, when Democrats stretched out the arguments on a pile of unrelated bills at the end of the legislative session to delay consideration of the voter bill until time was up. That's called "chubbing" in legislative parlance — the House's equivalent of a Senate filibuster — and it was the end of voter ID in 2009. In 2007, the legislation narrowly passed in the House on a party-line vote and then died in the Senate, when Gallegos et al blocked it from consideration.

Now, it's zipping through. The Senate Democrats weren't much of a roadblock. It takes two-thirds of the senators to bring up a piece of legislation in most cases, but this was engineered to require only a simple majority, and the Republicans have more than enough votes to cover that. In the House, there are 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats. It could take some time getting through, since Speaker Joe Straus hasn't named committees yet and this has to go through two committees to get to the full House, but there's not much doubt about the outcome.

Democrats are left to build a legal record, getting expert and nonexpert witnesses to testify (Republicans are doing the same) for the inevitable court fight ahead.

Other voter ID legislation has already gone through the courts. The law Texas tried to pass two years ago, modeled on Georgia's law, would have allowed alternative forms of identification. Georgia's law got through the Justice Department — which has to sign off on election law changes in states that (like Texas and Georgia) are covered by the federal Voting Rights Act — and is now being challenged in the courts. The Legislature's current proposal is closer to Indiana's voter ID law, which survived legal challenges all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. As filed (proposed amendments are piling up), this one requires a specified photo ID and voter registration card, period. No light bills or paycheck stubs as alternatives. The Texas proposal isn't identical to either law, but the sponsor, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, says it was drafted with the court rulings in mind.

Both sides cite stats and research papers to support their positions, with Democrats saying the photo ID law will suppress minority voting, and Republicans saying it won't do anything but stop fraud. Texas has yet to see a real scandal involving identity fraud at the voting booth, and the vote-suppression argument is difficult to substantiate. Maybe the best evidence is the tenacity of the politicians fighting about it. Both sides are dug in, and dug in on partisan lines. And the issue is arguably more about politics than about policy, anyway, a proxy for other wars about party politics, about immigration and minorities, about security and freedom.

Whatever it is, it's on its way into the law books.

Why is it an emergency? “I think it’s a very important issue,” Perry told reporters last week. “It’s one that certainly is getting a lot of ink. You all seem to think it’s a pretty important issue, too. You’re writing about it a lot. I think it’s an important issue, it was one that had a lot of focus, a lot of energy, a lot of time was spent on it, last session of the Legislature. As a matter of fact, there were some people that thought it was so important that they were willing to kill a substantial number of bills over it last time. So one of the ways you cure that is get it out early, get it on the table where you can’t have that kind of shenanigans again.”

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