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Effort to overhaul Texas voter ID rules survives — for now

A flurry of legislative activity Sunday night gave life to efforts to overhaul the Texas’ voter identification law, a change that's crucial to the state’s arguments over whether lawmakers disenfranchised minority 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 flurry of legislative activity Sunday night gave life to efforts to overhaul Texas’ voter identification rules — legislation Republicans call crucial to the state’s arguments in a high-profile legal battle over whether the state disenfranchised minority voters.

After clearing the Senate in March, Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 5, which in some ways would soften current photo ID rules, had languished in the House. But just an hour before the latest in a series of bill-killing deadlines, an emergency declaration by Gov. Greg Abbott helped push the legislation onto the House's calendar. The bill will be eligible for a vote on Tuesday, the deadline for the House to approve Senate bills.

Meanwhile, a maneuver by Huffman, R-Houston, gave the bill’s proponents a backup plan. She added the entire bill as an amendment to House Bill 2691, which relates to the appointment of election judges for countywide polling places and voter fraud at nursing homes. 

The chamber approved the amendment in a 21-10 vote and tentatively approved the bill 22-9. A final vote would send it back to the House, where members could accept the amendments — if they are seen as relevant to the bill — or call for a conference committee to squabble over differing versions of the legislation.

Republican leaders fear a failure to enact Senate Bill 5 — in whichever form — would dramatically boost the odds Texas will return to the list of governments required to seek federal approval before changing their election laws, following a federal judge’s ruling in April that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters by enacting one of the nation’s strictest voter identification laws in 2011.

Lawyers for the state are preparing for a June 7 status conference in the case, and they’re hoping passage of a new law will make scrutiny of the 2011 law moot — and also counter arguments that Texas can’t be trusted to protect minorities’ voting rights. 

“Shouldn’t have had to come to that. No-brainer to pass SB5 to protect Texas,” tweeted Chip Roy, the former first assistant attorney general of Texas. Earlier this week, he said inaction would amount to “legislative malpractice.”  

Huffman’s legislation would add options for Texas voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of ID currently required at the polls. But it would also create harsh criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

Democrats and other plaintiffs in the court battle suggest the legislation's passage would not be enough to prevent Texas from returning to federal elections oversight under the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

Cassandra Pollock and Alex Samuels also contributed to this story.

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State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature Voter ID