The Texas House has voted to relax the state's restrictive voter ID law that had been struck down in federal courts as intentionally discriminatory against minorities, further solidifying Texas's reputation for having among the worst voter participation rates in America.
Democrats urged lawmakers to think about that reputation as they debated the new voter ID proposal that would bring Texas in line with a federal judge's 2016 order, which created avenues for people to still vote even if they didn't have a government-issued photo ID, as the defunct 2011 law required.
"I’m encouraged by the discussion we’ve had with Chairman [Phil] King today," Representative Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), referencing the bill's Republican House sponsor, said just before full debate began. "But in the back of your mind, think about it, are we making it easier to vote? Are we moving the needle in a positive direction? Or are we unnecessarily and artificially limiting the right to vote with no good reason?"
Anchia's pep talk must have worked, because Democrats scored a few key victories as the evening wore on.
The bill, Senate Bill 5, is a near replica of U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos's order that governed the 2016 general election. Like the order, SB 5 allows people who don't have photo IDs to still cast votes by bringing some other type of ID, such as a birth certificate, bank statement, utility bill or voter ID card, and then by signing an affidavit explaining the "reasonable impediment" preventing them from having a photo ID. Government-issued IDs can also be expired for up to four years (or longer, with no limit, if the person is over 70). The first win for Democrats was passing an amendment to raise the expiration length to four years, reflecting Ramos's order, from two years, which was originally in the bill.
The only real difference from Ramos's order is the criminal penalty for lying on the affidavit. Originally, anyone who fudged facts would face a third-degree felony — but Democrats scored another win with an amendment to reduce it to a Class A misdemeanor.
Lawmakers hope the bill, which Governor Greg Abbott made an emergency item over the weekend, will finally keep Texas out of court when it comes to voter ID. The stringent 2011 law was struck down by Ramos (2015) and by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (2016) as having a disparate impact on minorities. Ramos had also found in 2015 that the law intentionally discriminated against minority voters, but the next year the Fifth Circuit asked Ramos to consider that opinion again. In 2017, she issued yet another ruling calling the law intentionally discriminatory.
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And while the House perhaps pushed the needle in a positive direction Wednesday, Republican lawmakers still pushed back against this idea.
"A majority of us in 2011 simply believed it was pragmatic to require a voter ID, because without it, voter results could be skewed and voters could be disenfranchised if votes were stolen," King said. "We didn’t want anyone disenfranchised. We didn’t want any disparate impact. We just wanted a pragmatic law to require voters to identify themselves at polling places."
Even though Democrats were able to tack on favorable amendments, the bill still passed along party lines, 95-54. They had attempted to do more to hold Republicans accountable for the recent rulings that found intentional discrimination. At one point they proposed an amendment to require affidavits to ask a person's race, hoping to show that minorities are more likely not to possess a photo ID and therefore were most harmed by the 2011 law, just as Ramos found. It failed.
SB 5 is closer to Governor Abbott's desk — but there's no guarantee the Senate won't make any big changes to the bill as it heads back to the lower chamber for final review.