By Sara Haji
ACLU of Texas Public Education Associate
The right of every citizen to vote is something we take pretty seriously over here at the ACLU of Texas, but today’s deliberations over photo voter ID threatens to undermine that right. On Jan. 20, Gov. Perry added photo voter ID to the list of emergency items for the 82nd legislative session. A divisive and enduring idea, the proposal to require government-issued photo identification of all Texans at the ballot box effectively ended the 2009 legislative session, with Democrats stalling it for the last five days of session. Unfortunately, the fast-tracking of photo voter ID legislation prevents legislators from grappling with the real crisis: the $27 billion state budget. Today, the House and Senate will convene as a Committee of the Whole to consider S.B. 14 (PDF file), which in many ways is even more stringent than its predecessor from 2009 (S.B. 14, for instance, does not give voters the option of replacing one piece of photo ID with two pieces of non-photo ID). Though the bill looks poised to pass, the ACLU of Texas hopes that legislators will consider measures—such as allowing same-day voter registration during early voting—to reduce the disproportionately negative impact of the bill on certain groups of Texas voters.
Currently, Texans present voter registration cards to poll workers on Election Day. There’s concern that this system enables voting fraud, but no instances have been documented and deterrents to in-person voter-fraud already exist. In Texas, a comprehensive voter list provides an exact-match system more likely to reject eligible voters than allow fraudulent ones; moreover, not a single case of in-person voter fraud has ever been prosecuted in the state. Voter registration cards include addresses at which to find Texans who provide false information, and false applications are prosecutable by fines and imprisonment.
Perhaps most importantly, S.B. 14 acknowledges both that new, extensive voter education efforts will have to be made if photo voter ID passes, and that poll workers will need additional training to handle changed procedures. But with slashes to the state budget, there is no need for increased government expenditure on a policy change with unproven benefits. Moreover, the photo identification component relies heavily on the Department of Public Safety—but with dozens of DPS offices temporarily closed and more slated to be cut altogether, Texans will have even fewer opportunities to acquire necessary identification. In Indiana and Georgia, states that passed the most restrictive photo voter ID bills, ID opponents were unable to produce citizens whose right to vote would actually be impeded by the new law; in Texas, though, county seats—where government ID can easily be issued—are often too far from small towns and communities to make the trip viable. For citizens of Redford, an 88-percent Hispanic community whose county seat of Marfa is over 75 miles away, these photo voter ID restrictions present an unreasonable burden on a basic constitutional right.
Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) has said that he will offer amendments allowing eligible residents to register on early voting days or election day; proposing that all statewide election days are made public holidays; and allowing registered voters to mail in ballots during early voting. We at the ACLU of Texas hope that these and other amendments are considered to alleviate the proposed burden to voting.