Texas House takes up emergency tactic to remedy voter ID in face of federal oversight threat

Update at 4:45 p.m., May 24

The House finally passed Senate Bill 5 on party line vote, 93-55. The bill will be sent back to the Senate for a final approval on all changes made in the House.

Original story

More than three months after Gov. Greg Abbott listed his top priorities of the 85th legislative session—fixes to the state's foster care system, sanctuary city bans, ethics reform and a call for a convention of states—the state's chief has added one more. On Sunday, Abbott declared fixing voter identification requirements a last-minute emergency item.

The Texas House of Representatives took up that issue on Tuesday just in time for a midnight deadline that would render Senate Bill 5 otherwise useless.

The bill issues a number of reforms, the biggest of which would codify the use of affidavits and non-photo identification in times when undue burden would occur to get photo ID.

It would also create a program for mobile voter registration units that would travel to hard-to-reach populations.

The bill has more urgent motivation to pass than the governor's declaration, though. In 2016, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Texas' 2011 voter ID law, which requires strict usage of photo identification in just seven forms, was discriminatory in effect for minority voters. In April, another ruling from a federal court judge declared the 2011 law to also be discriminatory in intent.

Attorney General Ken Paxton will meet again with that federal judge, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, on June 7 and review Texas' efforts to right its voter identification discrimination.

Many fear without a fix, most likely to be provided through SB 5, Texas would again be placed on a federal watchlist that would require the state to get federal preclearance before changing any election laws.

Texas has been off this list since 2013, when a Supreme Court decision cleared every state off the list, giving them all a fresh start. Should Texas go back on this list, it would be the first state to return.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, the House sponsor of SB 5, emphasized the urgency of passing a remedy.

"If we do not pass this today, we could quite possibly see Senate Bill 14, any voter ID, struck from Texas law," he said.




Changes from previous voter ID legislation include:

• offering mobile voter-registration units;
• allowing voters age 70 and older to use any acceptable form of expired identification;
• allowing voters younger than age 70 to use identification expired up to four years; and
• allowing anyone to use expired identification of any time frame if the voter also signs an affidavit claiming a reasonable impediment.

The bill requires voters to use photo identification in limited forms, including a driver’s license, U.S. military identification card, U.S. citizenship certificate, handgun carry license or U.S. passport.

Should a voter not be able to obtain one of these forms of identification, he or she could present other forms of identification with a signed affidavit stating a reasonable impediment. These forms of identification include a government document showing the name and address of the voter, a copy of a current utility bill, a bank statement, government check, paycheck or certified copy of a domestic birth certificate.

There are seven total reasonable impediments that would be recognized, including lack of transportation, stolen ID, an ID that has not yet been delivered and an unreasonable work schedule.

If a voter lies about his or her impediment, he or she could be punished with a Class A misdemeanor. This is the result of an amendment by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, which changed the penalty from a third-degree felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison, to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by one year in prison or a $4,000 fine.

The bill would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2018, following November elections.

In August 2016, Ramos issued an interim order that temporarily remedied voter identification for the upcoming November elections. SB 5 does not mirror Ramos' changes. One of the main differences has to do with the reasonable impediments to obtain photo identification offered in SB 5.

Ramos' order allowed for a fill-in-the-blank option that allowed a voter to write in an impediment that did not fit in the state's offerings. SB 5 does not offer this option.




King said only 49 of the representatives who were present in 2011, when the initial voter ID law was passed, are still serving in the House.

"The majority of us believed it was pragmatic to require a voter ID to ensure integrity," he said. "We didn't want anyone to be disenfranchised; we didn't want any disparate impact."

He said despite the rulings saying Texas lawmakers acted with a discriminatory intent, that was not the case.

Democrats rallied against the bill, attempting to amend it to make it easier for individuals to vote.

"We should be looking at ways not to restrict the franchise ... but instead to expand the franchise, to make it easier to vote, to accomplish straightforward protections that balance the need for security at the ballot box," Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said.

King said there is no reason to undo voter ID, but the Legislature must be careful to avoid any unintentional impact.

Several Democrats were successful in amending Senate Bill 5 in significant ways. These were the biggest changes to the bill from the Senate-passed version:

  • Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, successfully tacked on an amendment that would prohibit a voter from being rejected because his or her documents do not match the address on the voter roll.

  • Rep. Evelina Ortega, D-El Paso, added a provision that would implement a strategic plan to increase voter turnout within the state of Texas. Ortega said Texas has one of the worst records of turnout in the entire nation, ranking 50th out of 51 jurisdictions in the 2010 election.

  • The Moody amendment was also successful after a conference with King. It changed the penalty for lying about an impediment.

  • Another amendment by Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, changed the provision that allowed individuals below the age 70 to use expired identification from two years to four years.

  • An amendment by Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, created a report that will illustrate how much money is spent on voter education efforts.


A number of amendments seeking to expand the number of allowed IDs and to clearly show the impact of restrictive voter ID rules on minority voters were defeated.

The bill tentatively passed the House  in a 95-54 vote. It must receive final approval before midnight Wednesday.


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