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Senate Committee approves Texas voter ID overhaul

A Texas Senate panel has advanced a bill that would overhaul the state voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that the current law discriminates against black and Latino voters.

Voters line up outside the Oak Cliff Sub-Courthouse in Dallas, Texas, for the first day of early voting on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016.

A Texas Senate panel cleared legislation Monday that would overhaul the state's voter identification rules, an effort to comply with court rulings that the current law discriminates against black and Latino voters.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-0 to send the legislation to the full chamber.

Filed by Committee Chairwoman Joan HuffmanSenate Bill 5 would add options for Texas voters 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.

Huffman's bill would allow voters older than 70 to cast ballots using expired but otherwise acceptable photo IDs. The bill would also require the Texas secretary of state to create a mobile program for issuing election identification certificates. 

“The people of the state of Texas demand integrity at the ballot box,” Huffman said Monday.  “I am committed to constitutionally sound voter ID.” 

Voting rights advocates call the expanded list of options an improvement over the current embattled law, but have raised concerns over the strict penalties for false claims.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has granted the bill “priority” status, carving it a faster route through the Legislature.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last July ruled that Texas lawmakers 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.

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.

Celina Moreno, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, testified Monday that Huffman’s bill was a “major improvement” over the current law. But she pressed lawmakers to remove the felony penalties, calling them “voter intimidation.” 

Matthew Simpson, with the ACLU of Texas, suggested that a third-degree felony is often reserved for violent conduct. 

More than 16,400 Texas voters signed “reasonable impediment” affidavits during the 2016 general election, according to a tally of documents provided by the Texas secretary of state’s office. And an Associated Press analysis published found at least 500 instances in which voters signed the affidavit — and didn’t show photo ID — despite indicating that they owned one. Such voters could be harshly penalized under Huffman’s bill. It's not clear how many of those questionable affidavits were submitted intentionally or out of confusion.

Nueces County Clerk Kara Sands testified that her county had identified 40 questionable affidavits. Some voters, for instance, wrote that they believed they didn’t need to show photo ID — even if they owned one. Additionally, her office recorded six complaints last year from people who said someone else had voted in their place. They've been forwarded to police and the county sheriff's office.

Some who testified Monday said the bill didn’t go far enough in expanding access to the polls.  Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE San Antonio, a group geared at bolstering civic participation among youth, called for lawmakers to add college and university IDs to the list of what’s acceptable.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alan Vera, with True The Vote, said he worried relaxing standards under SB 5 would increase the likelihood of in-person voter fraud. He lamented the court rulings that spurred the legislation, calling them the product of “activist judges legislating from the bench.”

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Politics 2016 elections 85th Legislative Session Voter ID