AUSTIN — The Texas state House Elections Committee Monday approved a bill that would make court-ordered changes to the state’s voter identification law, moving the proposal to the House floor under the threat of federal action.
The bill, written by Republican Rep. Joan Huffman, would give more leeway to people who show up to vote without one of seven state-approved photo IDs. They would be allowed to use other documents that carry their names and addresses, such as utility bills, as proof of identity if they sign a “declaration of impediment” stating why they don’t have an approved IDs.
The bill would make lying on the document a third-degree felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison. It would also create a voter registration program that would send mobile units to events to issue election identification certificates.
The committee sent the bill to the House floor on a 5-2 vote along party lines. Democrats in both legislative chambers oppose the bill, saying it does not go far enough to address the discriminatory problems that federal courts have found with the law. When the state Senate passed its proposal in March, Huffman said her bill balanced protections against voter fraud with maintaining access to the vote.
Last week, a U.S. District Court judge ruled for the second time that the 2011 voter ID law was written with intent to discriminate against minority voters. It dealt another blow to the state in a six-year legal battle and increased pressure on the Legislature to permanently address the issues.
District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos has said she will wait until after the legislative session ends May 29 to rule on what remedies her court can provide if what the Legislature does isn’t satisfactory.
One option would be to put Texas back on the list of states that need permission from the U.S. Justice Department before changing election laws.
A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling took Texas and other states with a history of discrimination off the list. If Ramos put restores the state to it, Texas would be the first state to go back under federal oversight since the ruling.
“The litigation is clearly looming in the background there,” said Adam Gitlin, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the case. “They are aware that now Texas has lost before (several) federal judges in trying to defend this law, and that they have to make changes if they’re going to have a voter ID law that can withstand judicial scrutiny.”
In August, the state agreed to soften the law’s requirements for the November elections after an appeals court found them discriminatory. Those changes were intended as interim fixes while Ramos ruled on other aspects of the lawsuit.
The Republican authors of the bills say they used a July ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found the law discriminatory as their guide for writing the legislation. Huffman said in March that the bill was “very fair and should have no discriminatory effect.”
But critics like Rep. Rafael Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, say the Legislature’s proposal to fix the voter ID law “doesn’t even meet the bare minimum” of the court-ordered changes.
Anchia said Democrats would try to amend the bill on the House floor but it will be up to Republicans, who have a majority in the chamber, to decide whether they are serious about fixing the issues identified by the court. If they are not, Anchia said, plaintiffs in the case would push for Texas to be brought back under federal oversight for election law changes.
“The opportunity is not ours (Democrats), the opportunity is theirs to come up with a bill that doesn’t disenfranchise,” Anchia said. “We will know very quickly whether or not the House is more flexible and nimble than the Senate in this regard.”
Critics jumped on Ramos’ ruling last week to advance their points. Ramos said the Legislature rejected changes to the law in 2011 that would have softened its racial impact, such as not allowing more forms of photo IDs on the approved list.
During the Senate debate in March, Democrats tried to add student IDs to the list of state-approved documentation for voting but were rebuffed by Republicans. Several other states with voter ID laws allow people to vote with student identification.
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