The Austin Chronicle

Watson's 3/17 Speech Against Voter ID

By Lee Nichols, March 18, 2009, 4:13pm, Newsdesk

Whatever complaints one may have about Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, one of them can't be that the man doesn't give a good speech. For the second time this session in the Senate's tussle over voter ID, I found his words worth printing in full. Here's what he said on Tuesday, March 17, in an ultimately futile argument against SB 362 (and it's even better if you hear it – go to 1:25:30 of this video):

Thank you very much, Mr. President.

Members, the outcome today we all know isn’t really in doubt. It hasn’t been since we opened this legislative session. We knew what would happen, what we should expect, well before our meeting last week of the Committee of the Whole.

But even knowing what’s about to happen today, there was still a debate to be had last week, and a case that needed to be made.

People who are watching us – and maybe, more importantly, those who weren’t watching, those millions of legally voting Texans whose lives won’t be the same if this bill passes – have a right to expect someone to prove that the supposed voter impersonation problem is at least significant enough to justify all the time we’re spending on it.

Or that this bill actually was the answer to stopping what cases we're being told about.

Or, more importantly, that this bill would not reduce the ability of people to vote. These folks on both sides of this debate, most of them good, concerned, everyday Texans, are entitled to proof. Not assumptions or rationalizations or anecdotes, but actual, statistical proof that Senate Bill 362 won’t target some of our most vulnerable citizens and block them from fulfilling their right and duty.

Members, the case was not made. And I deeply believe that whether it’s in the Department of Justice or before a federal court, that will be confirmed.

There remains only the flimsiest evidence that voter impersonation – the only type of fraud addressed by this bill – even exists. Not counting 60-year-old history and the unverified testimony of a controversial witness for a partisan elections administrator, nothing at all we’ve heard demonstrates that this is actually occurring any more than anecdotally in Texas.

And let’s be honest – if someone had the goods on a case that was going to settle this fight once and for all, they probably would have been testifying at some time other than 4 in the morning.

It’s also far from clear that Senate Bill 362 will stop whatever irregularities might conceivably be out there. We’ve heard of concerns about absentee ballots – this bill does nothing about them. We’ve heard about suspicious voter registrations – this bill leaves registration procedures entirely in place. We’ve been showered with hypotheticals about how much could possibly go wrong if some shadowy figure decided they’d rather steal a voter registration card than an election.

Yet we’ve heard of no instances in memory where our elections failed our democracy because people impersonated voters.

Unfortunately, the most significant new information we got last week was that our existing laws haven’t been enforced with the rigor – or, at least, the money – that we’ve all been led to believe.

I suppose this debate has provided a service if all it's done is help establish once and for all that the Attorney General has not, in fact, spent about a million and a half of a grant battling voter impersonation. I know if there’s anything we all share in this chamber, it’s a hope that we’ll get double-checked, typo-free data about what cases are being investigated, what’s being spent on them, and where they’re occurring – even if it means fewer boisterous political proclamations about epidemics.

So let’s be clear about the record: according to the witnesses, voter impersonation hasn’t had any impact on any election, at any level, at any time, in any part of this big state.

But none of that matters today.

Today isn’t about proof. It’s not about the law.

Today is about politics.

We can, and we will, shoot at this thing until we put holes in the holes. But that doesn’t change the numbers in this room. And it really doesn’t change that one potent question on every political poll that gets waved around like a DNA test in a murder trial:

Should people have to show photo identification before they vote?

Well, let's take that head-on. It's a very simple question. And surely a simple question would have an easy and simple answer, right?

Well, every one of you who’s tried to fix schools, fix health care, fix property taxes, fix tuition, or fix traffic knows that just isn’t so. And no amount of hoping or guessing is going to turn this bill into an adequate answer to this question.

I wish this bill did what some say it does. We all do. Every single one of us on this floor wishes we could end all voter fraud and maintain full access to voting without costing the state or the counties a single dime.

But if that bill exists, members, this one sure isn’t it. This one isn't it.

So let’s talk, for a minute, about what we’d be working on if we were actually serious about this. Just for fun, let’s think about solutions that aren’t partisan gut-checks but actually go after the cheaters without harming legitimate, conscientious voters.

• We could – and we should – increase penalties on every criminal on every side who tries to influence the outcomes of our elections.
• We could seal shut whatever loopholes people have found to get documents they need to register falsely.
• We could empower election judges to crack down on people they know are cheating without harming those who aren’t.
• We could follow the lead of some counties and do a better job of keeping our voter rolls clean.
• We could develop bold, innovative strategies that expanded registration even while imposing new voting restrictions.
• We could even have a serious, bipartisan effort to figure out how the state – which currently bears the full burden of providing voter ID in the form of a voter registration certificate – can add photo identification to its responsibilities, and how it can pay for it as cheaply as possible.

I favor all of those things. I’d imagine that just about all of you in this room do. We want to stop fraud wherever it exists. We all believe in the sanctity of the voting booth. So how is it possible that voter ID is not just divisive, but wrenching?

Because, in the end, I really don’t think it's about the policy of providing identification before voting.

This has risen to the top of everything – over property tax relief, over the economic crisis, over health care, over education reform, over tuition and university funding – because it’s not like those things. Those are policy questions.

This is a political bill being considered in a political place.

And there's no clearer demonstration of how obviously political – or maybe politically obvious – this bill is than the fiscal note.

Last week, the folks flew in from other states to talk about their Voter ID programs, and they couldn't stop talking about what a great job they did educating people about what the law meant. They didn’t just brag about spending money – they used it in court to justify their actions.

But last week, we were told we didn't need any money. And then yesterday, we're told there's now a two million dollar rider for the broad label of "voter education."

Well, I suppose that's some recognition of this bill's failings. But it also highlights those failings.

It demonstrates the expediency with which this is pursued – no fiscal note, but it now costs $2 million?

And it reaffirms the lack of data. Why not 1 million dollars? Why not 5 million dollars? What does a real, appropriate effort cost?

And, of course, it also shows the hidden cost if we're wrong. People won't be educated on this new obligation.

And of course, that's just the Secretary of State's office. What about DPS? DPS told us last session that by giving a free photo identification card to anyone who claims they want it for voting, they would lose $671,000 a year, more than $1.3 million per budget, and more than $4 million every six years out of our Highway Fund.

The methodology’s in that bill and everything:
• More than a half-million people have these ID cards,
• At least half of those would use this voting exemption to avoid having to pay for them,
• Those folks pay an average of $15 per card.
• And you have a fiscal impact of negative 4 million dollars through 2012.

Folks, look it up – House Bill 218, 80th Session. It’s really quite convincing.

But this year, the fiscal note informs us that while “there could be a revenue loss” due to the voting exemption, “it is unknown how many people would make the request, and therefore unknown the amount of revenue loss that could occur.”

Members, that is not an answer. In fact, it speaks to the other problems – we don't know how many should or will need the ID.

And of course, as has been pointed out, nothing was said about the cost of submitting this for pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act.

This ignorance of basic facts is particularly troubling given Texas has a special burden on voting rights issues. The state earned it, with a terrible legacy of intimidation, suppression, and outright violence that hovers darkly over our history.

Now no one – not one of you in this chamber – has any desire to go back to those terrible times. I know you love Texas and its people too much to even consider it.

But I wonder if you’ve really studied this bill and made sure that it won’t turn us back toward the past. I keep looking, and asking, and hoping for any data that proves this bill won’t harm the very voters who once were explicitly targeted by laws and thugs – those treated so shamefully in a past that’s far more recent than the transgressions inside Box 13.

No one, it seems, knows just what this bill could mean to people who are poor enough, old enough, or just plain disconnected enough that they haven’t needed to get a driver’s license.

No one tells us how many Texans don’t have a photo ID, what those millions of people may look like, or whether they’ll be able to meet this bill’s requirements.

And no one has shown a single study or can say for sure just how common it is to have all of these shards of paper that we in this chamber seem to take for granted.

No one, frankly, has demonstrated a level of thought and care that gives me any confidence that this bill stands a chance of holding up outside these partisan confines and partisan rules.

And that should be troubling to all of us. Because if I’m wrong, and if the will of this chamber is somehow upheld, then this bill will have consequences. And believe it or not, those consequences will have nothing whatsoever to do with politics, games, or power.

The consequences will play out on decent, hard-working, patriotic citizens who just want to vote but can’t find time for yet more hurdles and burdens, let alone those imposed on them by their own government.

We all talk about the sanctity of the voting booth. Well, it isn’t the registration card, the judge, the rulebook, or even the ballot itself that makes it sacred. It’s the person. It’s you and me. It's our constituents.

In the end, this bill targets far too many of us by declaring a crisis that doesn't exist and adding new burdens that for some will be expensive and difficult.

This bill makes it harder for honest people to vote. It's wrong, no matter what happens today.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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