The first truly controversial act of the new Texas Legislature came last week with the passage of SB 14, a new voter identification bill that would require any voter to present a state-issued photo ID - typically a driver's license - in order to vote. Proponents of the bill argue that such legislation is needed in order to protect the integrity of elections. Opponents, including some traditional civil rights organizations, fear that any such law will have a disproportionate impact on minorities, the elderly and disabled.
"It is imperative that we protect the public's confidence in elections by deterring and detecting voter fraud," said bill sponsor State Sen. Troy Fraser in a statement on the Senate website.
The bill, considered by some to be the strictest in the nation, passed by a straight party-line vote last week. Supporters brought in witnesses to testify that, contrary to the views of groups like the Texas NAACP and Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, feared decreases in voter turnout have not materialized in other states that have passed similar bills, such as Indiana and Georgia.
But opponents are not satisfied that the bill contains adequate safeguards against disenfranchising broad classes of citizens. Unlike laws in other states, the bill doesn't allow for the use of expired IDs. Other state laws have a longer list of allowable types of photo identification that can be used. Michigan's law, for example, allows those without a state-issued ID to use a current out-of-state license or ID, or a college or high school picture ID. State Sen. Rodney Ellis and other opponents point out that the new rules might burden mobility-impaired individuals - i.e. the disabled, the elderly - who are less likely to be drivers in the first place and for whom obtaining an ID might be a challenging task.
"Let's say we have a pie, and that pie is all the people who can vote in an election right now in Texas," said Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe. "Right now we have a very diverse pie. What they're doing is deciding that next year, instead of using that same recipe to make that same pie, they've decided to come up with a new recipe. This new recipe greatly diminishes the diversity in the pie. It's going to be a much whiter pie than it had been in the past."
Bledsoe worries that the law doesn't do enough to prevent abuses at the precinct level. Over the years, the NAACP has catalogued numerous instances of alleged voter disenfranchisement from precincts across the state. In response to complaints from students at predominantly-Black Prairie View A&M, who were told they could not vote in the precincts where their schools were located, the NAACP and others have lobbied for the acceptance of student IDs for voting purposes - an example of a type of ID that the new law doesn't allow.
"It would dramatically restrict the documents that are allowed to be used at the polls," said Luis Figueroa, legislative director for MALDEF. "We hope that the House of Representatives will modify the Senate bill to ensure that voters won't be disenfranchised in an effort to crack down on the least common form of fraud, voter impersonation fraud."
Figueroa argues that without certain safeguards, such as allowing citizens to register during early voting, the current law requires one to register at least 30 days prior to an election. And, expanding the list of allowed ID types, it may be possible that broad classes of people will be negatively impacted.
"There's no reason not to allow Medicare IDs, there's no reason not to allow student IDs," Figueroa said.
The law does provide for a voter education campaign to let the public know about the changes to voting requirements, and supporters are quick to point out that the law would allow anyone without an ID to obtain one from the state free of charge. Critics argue that these provisions don't go far enough.
Another possible source of problems is the unequal distribution of Department of Public Safety offices around the state. Seventy-seven counties lack a DPS office. In parts of the state, citizens have to drive 100 miles or more to reach a DPS office. DPS offices are also lacking in many inner-city neighborhoods. The law would also appear to add to DPS' burden at a time when the department is confronted with the likelihood of budget cuts by the same Legislature.
Because Texas is one of several states - mostly Southern - that must receive a federal pre-clearance in order to make drastic changes to voting procedures because of its past history of disenfranchising Black voters. That fact would likely mean that the law, assuming it's passed by the House and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, would be vulnerable to a federal Voting Rights Act challenge.
"Democrats may have to depend on the U.S. Justice Department to reject a photo ID law they view as unfair," said Sen. Royce West in a released statement.