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House, Senate OK compromise on bill to soften voter ID law

The House and Senate have approved a compromise on voter ID legislation, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

Voter ID regulations posted at a south Texas early voting location on Oct. 26, 2016.

The Texas House and Senate have approved a deal to relax the state’s voter identification requirements, meaning the closely watched legislation now only awaits Gov. Greg Abbott's approval. 

The Republican is expected to sign Senate Bill 5, capping a flurry of late activity that pushed the legislation to the finish line after some state leaders feared its demise — and legal consequences from inaction. 

The House approved the compromise bill Sunday in a 92-56 vote — one day after the Senate backed the deal along party lines.

Sen. Joan Huffman’s bill, which would soften voter ID requirements once considered strictest in the nation, responds to court findings that the current law discriminated against black and Latino voters. 

Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Texas lawmakers discriminated against minority voters by enacting the 2011 law. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos went further in April, ruling the state discriminated on purpose. That raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws — a process called preclearance. 

The state’s lawyers want to point to SB 5 next month when they return to Ramos’ Corpus Christi court for a hearing on how to remedy the voting violations. Republican leaders hope she will accept the new law and refrain from putting Texas under preclearance.

Among other changes, the legislation would add options for voters who say they cannot “reasonably” obtain one of seven forms of required ID, and it would create criminal penalties for those who falsely claim they need to choose from the expanded list of options.

Democrats say SB 5 won’t go far enough to expand ballot access — or to keep Texas from federal oversight — and contains provisions that might discourage some Texans from going to the polls.

Ramos temporarily softened the ID rules for the 2016 elections, and Huffman’s legislation somewhat follows its lead. It would allow people without photo ID to vote if they presented alternate forms of ID and signed affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

Those voters could present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. Those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged state jail felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail. That was a compromise between the House, which originally sought to make the crime a Class A misdemeanor, and the Senate, which pushed to make it a third-degree felony.

Under the final bill, Texans who own qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: 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. Such IDs may be expired up to four years, thanks to a provision in the House bill that survived the compromise. Voters 70 years and older may use such IDs expired for any length of time.

The final bill stripped some provisions from the House legislation, including requirements that the secretary of state to study ways to boost the state’s perennially low voter turnout and that the agency reveal details — currently withheld — about its spending on voter education efforts.

House Democrats on Sunday voiced disappointment with those changes.

“The attempt was to try and bring some type of transparency, said Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who had pushed the spending disclosure provision. “My concern is basically handing a blank check over to the Secretary of State’s office.”

The bill’s approval capped Republicans’ furious push to rescue it after having long sat untouched in the House. The maneuvering included a rare last-minute emergency declaration last week from Abbott

The governor and other Republicans have long argued the 2011 requirements were needed to prevent voter fraud, but opponents — backed by the court rulings — have cited the paucity of proven in-person voter fraud and suggested lawmakers instead sought to keep minorities from going to the polls.

Though Democrats and civil rights groups have called parts of SB 5 a good start, they pushed for ID options beyond what was in the bill — student IDs or tribal IDs, for instance — and raised concerns about strict penalties for lying on the “reasonable impediment affidavit.”

Democrats argued last week that SB 5 — even the somewhat less strict version passed by the House — would not pass legal muster. They wanted Texas to scrap all vestiges of the 2011 law.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature Voter ID