Voter ID Bill Redux

You can lead Republicans to your argument but can't make them acknowledge it. That's the lesson to be gleaned from last Friday's House Elections Committee hearing. It was ostensibly a hearing on the broader topic of election fraud in Texas, but Democrats suspect a not very hidden agenda: to dig up ammo for a renewed push for a voter ID bill in next year's legislative session. Dems on the committee, especially Rafael Anchía of Dallas and Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, worked hard to distinguish between voter impersonation – which would be the target of voter ID requirements – and the other types of election fraud brought up at the hearing.

"Voter ID" is shorthand for laws that would require voters to present photo identification when they show up to vote; voter ID bills have been shot down in the past two legislative sessions. Republicans strongly favor such laws, saying they are necessary to prevent voting by ineligible people, such as immigrants or felons, and to confirm that the person listed on the registration card is indeed the person presenting it. Democrats charge the voter ID campaign is really an attempt to suppress Democratic turnout: The poor, elderly, women, and racial minorities are less likely to have a photo ID, Dems say, and it's no coincidence that those are groups that predominantly vote Democratic. Plus, obtaining an ID requires spending money, which means the law would, in theory, become a de facto (and unconstitutional) poll tax. Finally, Dems say, voter ID is a solution looking for a problem: Confirmed cases of voter impersonation at the polls are virtually nonexistent.

The star GOP witness was Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, who brought several boxes of files he said documented 381 "iron-clad" cases of voter fraud. "Fraud cases exist, period," he said. "It shouldn't be a debate for this body."

"There are many types of fraud, aren't there?" countered Anchía. "When you make the statement that there's definitely voter fraud, it includes a pretty broad definition, right?" That was a theme that ran throughout the hearing – over and over, when examples of fraud were raised, Anchía pointed out that most involved mail-in ballots – a situation that a photo ID requirement would not ameliorate.

But Bettencourt did say he had found 24 examples of deceased voters who had a voting history after their deaths, covering a period from 1994 to 2000, and pointed to a Houston Chronicle story documenting 35 noncitizens who voted in the 2004 presidential elections. Anchía specifically challenged the latter number, saying his staff checked the names and found 23 were actually citizens.

Committee Chair Leo Berman, R-Tyler, waved a Mexican ID card, saying Texas should adopt a similar system, and wondered: If a poor nation like Mexico can adopt such a card, why can't a wealthy country like America? Witnesses from NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice countered that perhaps Mexico isn't the best model for a democratic government to follow and claimed Mexico doesn't do the expensive work required to make sure every citizen gets a card. Those same witnesses also noted there are more reports of UFO sightings every year than allegations of voter fraud, and Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth (not a committee member but who sat in on the hearing), questioned why conservatives would want to spend that kind of money on a problem that, practically speaking, doesn't exist.

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