The Austin Chronicle

Are Republicans Trying to Kill Voter ID?

By Lee Nichols, May 6, 2009, 6:53pm, Newsdesk

Todd Smith is getting exasperated. You can hear it in his voice.

The chair of the House Elections Committee, a Republican from Euless, wants to deliver a voter ID bill to Gov. Perry’s desk – requiring a photo ID from would-be voters is, after all, a major priority of his party to “protect the integrity of elections” (as the GOP often tells us, even though voter impersonation is an extremely rare occurrence). But with an almost evenly divided House (76-74 in favor of Republicans) it’s hard to find a balance between what each party is willing to accept.

As we’ve noted many times before, the Democratic Party strenuously opposes voter ID, claiming the real GOP goal is to turn traditional Dem constituencies such as women, minorities, and the elderly – groups less likely to have or obtain photo ID – away at the polls. But ironically, it’s a pair of Republicans that Smith says are preventing him from getting it out of committee.

“The problem is that the target keeps moving on me,” complained Smith to me on the House floor. “Every time I put something out, it’s not sufficient.”

Smith floated another draft of a possible compromise bill on the floor today. Smith has been leaving Sen. Troy Fraser's SB 362 parked in committee in hopes of finding something that will pull a few swing-district Democrats to vote “aye.”

But that’s getting push-back from GOP hardliners on the committee and stopping him short of the five votes he needs.

“I have a really good agreement with [Republican] Rep. [Dennis] Bonnen and Rep. [Dwayne] Bohac, and [Democratic] Rep. [Joe] Heflin,” Smith said. “I’m having trouble getting Rep. [Betty] Brown and Rep. [Linda] Harper-Brown on board.

"I believed until today that their preference was for a hard photo ID bill. Now I’m being told for the first time that they want the Senate bill, just as it was, without any additions, which is for one photo [or] two non-photos. The version that I put out has Rep. Brown’s committee substitute in full as part of the legislation. And now I’m being told that they don’t want a hard photo, they want a photo with a non-photo, which is what I originally proposed!

“But they want it without any money for registering voters, or without a transition period, or without a signature verifying process,” Smith continued. “Then I don’t get the marginal votes. It’s time to find out whether Rep. Brown and Rep. Harper-Brown want a voter ID bill, because my distinct impression at this point is that they do not. For whatever reason, I am under the distinct impression that they want to kill it, and I may give them the opportunity to do that.”

I just tried to get a response from Harper-Brown, but she was madly dashing down a hallway and said she was too busy, and I couldn’t get the attention of Brown, whose desk is in the middle of the floor. One possible theory for Republicans killing their own pet bill: Feigned outrage over the lack of a voter ID law makes a much better campaign cudgel for Gov. Perry than his rejection of stimulus money for unemployment insurance.

I haven’t had time to read it over yet, but Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, the Dem’s point man on the issue, said Smith’s latest language is even worse than SB 362, the bill that caused a bloody, all-night battle in the other chamber at the beginning of the session.

“It eliminates two forms of non-photo ID [as a substitute for photo ID]," Anchia said. "It’s unbelievable. It is more strict than even the Senate bill. So instead of moving in a direction that seeks to approach a positive and bipartisan election reform, this goes backward.”

Also today, a group of 31 Democratic committee chairs and vice-chairs and Speaker Pro Tem Craig Eiland sent a letter to Smith and Speaker of the House Joe Straus demanding another round of public hearings on the bill that emerges from Elections.

Fraser’s bill was already subjected to two days of hearings (as well as the aforementioned all-nighter), but, the letter said, “While some components of the bill may have been discussed previously in committee, the public has not had an opportunity to give voice to their opinions regarding the comprehensive new bill. This is only prudent, given the Voting Rights Act and the impact of this bill on every citizen in Texas.”

They backed this point up by attaching a memo from prominent voting rights attorney J. Gerald Hebert saying as much.

“We’ve already had 48 hours or hearings on this bill,” countered Smith. “We’ve heard every conceivable aspect of this bill. What [the committee] is doing is just cobbling together different versions [that] have already been heard infinitum, and we routinely in this process have committee substitutes that are not identical to the version that was originally heard.

“We’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. The only reason the public hearing has been requested is so that [opponents] can kill off another five days in hopes of killing this legislation. There’s no legal reason to do so, there’s no public policy reason to do so. If we can do so, if I can once again bend over to accommodate all sides on this issue without putting the legislation in jeopardy due to the calendar [the session ends June 1], then I will do so. If I can’t do so without putting the legislation in jeopardy then I won’t."

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