AUSTIN (KXAN) - The Republican-backed voter ID bill passed in the Texas Senate 19-11 Wednesday night.
After nearly 40 amendments offered and six hours of debate, the move to require Texans to present a photo ID before voting was one step closer to becoming a law.
"We're going to make sure anyone voting in the state of Texas when they show up at the polls they're going to have to be able to show who they are with a photo ID," said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the bill's sponsor.
While senators rejected a string of amendments to allow additional forms of photo ID, they approved giving Texans the ability to use concealed-handgun licenses to vote. The amendment passed 30-0, adding handgun licenses to the list of acceptable items: driver's license, passport, and military ID.
"What we tried to do today by amendment is make a situation we knew was going to happen by amendment to ease that burden just slightly," said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. " We fell short on many measures but there's still the process to go in the house."
Though they were able to defeat similar bills in past sessions, Democrats acknowledged the inevitable passage of the bill this session. An overwhelming GOP majority gave the bill a much better chance, which was already apparent starting as the legislation cleared a committee of all senators and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst Tuesday evening.
Republicans maintained the bill would prevent voter fraud at the polls, but Democrats said it would only keep voters - their voters - away from the polls. Such voting groups brought up were the elderly, the poor, minorities, and the disabled.
"I'm proud the Texas Senate has taken swift action on Voter ID because it's my hope to see this long-overdue legislation finally signed into law this year," said Dewhurst. " Voter ID will help stamp out voter fraud and increase public confidence in our election process by ensuring that only U.S. citizens − who are legally eligible − vote in Texas elections."
While regular Senate rules had the bill originally planned for debate Wednesday night, Democrats, who met in caucus in the afternoon, agreed to suspend those rules in order to take it up earlier.
Voter ID is one of Gov. Rick Perry's emergency items, legislation he has asked lawmakers to take up in the first 60 days of the session. He has said one of the reason for fast-tracking the bill is because it never made it to a vote in the House last session. In 2009, House Democrats stalled with numerous, lengthy questions in order to kill the bill.
"I am pleased that state lawmakers are quickly addressing this issue, which is important to Texans and critical to ensuring our state has proper protections against voter fraud, and I fully expect the House will soon follow suit and pass this important measure," Perry said.
Democrats question the constitutionality of the Voter ID bill, saying it might violate the federal Voting Rights Act. However, Fraser said he modeled the legislation after an Indiana law, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld.
"Sadly, as structured, SB 14 is poised to become the most stringent photo voter ID measure in the country," said Van de Putte. "Without the amendments that my colleagues and I proposed to alleviate voter suppression, I do not believe SB 14 can comply with the provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act."
Fraser also said implementation and education for voters would cost $2 million, though he suggested most or all of that could come from federal funding. Democrats have been critical of the cost, saying that cost or available funding is not a sure thing yet and that future court costs might outweigh the benefits.
They also questioned the reasoning behind the bill and any evidence of voter fraud. To consider a bill just two weeks into the session is a highly unusual move. Democrats suggested it should not have taken priority during a state budget crisis with a projected shortfall as high as $27 billion.
Republicans said the integrity of the ballot box is one of the most important issues facing all Texans.
"We all agree that ensuring the integrity of the vote is extremely important," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "Because that right is extremely important, we need to be careful moving forward so that we don't create unnecessary barriers to a sacred, constitutional right."
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