Fearing the Vote

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The Texas Legislature nearly melted down this session over a controversial proposal to require voters to present photo identification at the polls. Democrats argued the proposal was a naked attempt to suppress voter turnout. Not so, Republicans countered. They said the bill was needed to protect the integrity of elections. Perhaps, but there’s little doubt that the prospect of higher voter turnout in Texas—and the presumed Democratic gains that would come with it—scares the bejesus out of some Republicans. Consider their panicked reaction to another, far less publicized, voting bill.

House Bill 1654, authored by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat, looked innocuous enough. It aimed to increase voter registration among high school seniors in Texas—a piece of good policy that might have been expected to glide through the Legislature unscathed.

Only about half of 18- to 24-year-old Texans are registered to vote, which ranks the state 42nd in the country. (About 70 percent of all Texans are registered to vote.) To increase those numbers, Anchia’s bill would have required public and private high schools to deputize more people to register students to vote. Under current law, schools have just a single voter registrar—the principal or someone designated by the principal. This bill would have raised the number of required voter registrars in each school to at least four.

The bill breezed through committee. The legislative liaison for the Texas Republican County Chairmen’s Association testified in favor of the bill. No one opposed it.

But when HB 1654 reached the House floor, some Republicans freaked out. Rep. Todd Smith of Euless was one of the few Republicans who supported the bill. During the House floor debate, he summed up his GOP colleagues’ objections this way: “I’ve heard some talk that the majority of teachers are Democrats. That might be a problem [if they’re registering students].”

Of course, many Republicans wouldn’t say they were worried that more young voters might give Democrats a boost at the polls. Instead they offered up all kinds of other concerns: They didn’t want to infringe on “local control” of schools; they worried teachers and staff wouldn’t have enough time to register voters; one even called the bill “another unfunded mandate.”

Finally, Rep. Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford, conceded what really bothered him and others. The bill, he said, would create an “army” of perhaps 10,000 teachers and school employees across the state that could register voters. The subtext was clear enough—this army of teachers might indoctrinate students to vote for Democrats. The whole thing seemed a little paranoid, but when it comes to issues surrounding voter registration and turnout, that’s where many in the GOP are coming from these days.

The bill squeaked through the House on a 75-74 vote. Only two Republicans, Smith and Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, voted for it. The measure later died in the Senate, where Republicans refused to bring it to the floor.

For the next two years, at least, the GOP is safe from a scourge of politically conscious 18-year-olds.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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