Top Texas Republicans unveiled legislation Tuesday that would overhaul the state’s voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that have found that the current law discriminates against minority groups.
Filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, Senate Bill 5 would add options for Texans who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. It would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has granted the bill “priority” status, carving it a faster route through the Legislature. Nineteen other senators have signed onto the bill, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is still defending the current ID law in court — applauded the legislation Tuesday.
In a statement, Paxton said the proposal would both ensure the “the integrity of the voting process” and comply with court rulings that have found fault with the current law, considered the nation’s strictest.
Chad Dunn, a Houston-based attorney for groups suing the state over that law, called the legislation "a step in the right direction."
"The state is acknowledging the federal court’s conclusion that the (current) law is discriminatory," he said Tuesday.
Last July, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas' 2011 voter ID law discriminated against minority groups, who were less likely to possess one of the acceptable types of identification: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.
A lower court temporarily softened the rules for November’s election. It allowed folks without photo identification to vote if they presented an alternate form of ID and signed an affidavit swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining identification.
More than 16,400 Texas voters signed “reasonable impediment” affidavits during the General Election, according to a tally of documents provided by the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
Huffman’s bill would follow that format, allowing voters without photo identification to present documents such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck. And election officers could not question the “reasonableness” of the excuse for not having photo ID.
But those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a third-degree felony under Huffman’s bill. Such crimes carry penalties of two to 10 years in prison.
An Associated Press analysis published Saturday found at least 500 instances in which voters signed the affidavit — and didn’t show photo ID — despite indicating that they owned one.
"Did not want to 'pander' to government requirement," one affidavit from Hidalgo County said, according to the Associated Press report.
Another provision of Huffman's bill would allow voters over age 70 to cast ballots using expired but otherwise acceptable photo ID. The bill would also require the Texas Secretary of State to create a mobile program for issuing election identification certificates.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi is scheduled to hear arguments Feb. 28 over whether Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minorities in passing the 2011 law.
Annie Daniel contributed to this report.