Identifying the Real Voter ID Debate



As another reporter said to me—nine and a half hours after we arrived in the Capitol to start reporting on the Senate’s voter ID debate—this whole thing feels like a terrible movie trilogy. For the last two sessions, the Texas Legislature has been having the same discussion: Should voters be required to show a photo ID before they cast their ballots?  

As with so many sequels to sequels, the plot is predictable. Democrats say the measure will suppress turnout; Republicans say it will stop fraud. The final act, which has yet to come, is the most obvious: The bill will pass through both the House and the Senate before getting signed into law. With such enormous Republican majorities in both chambers, the Democrats won’t have any way to stop it.

But while the die may have been cast in the November elections, this year’s debate over what’s become a perennial issue has been stunningly muted about what’s at stake: More than getting grandmas to the polls or stopping supposed voter fraud, this bill is about partisan advantage. 

It’s not hard to see why both parties are passionate about voter ID. Both parties cashed in all their chips on the issue last session. That year, the Republicans in the Senate created a loophole in their rules to bring up the bill without the two-thirds support normally required. It was a breach of protocol that had the 12 Democrats howling. Then House Democrats found their own loophole, slowing down the lower chamber so that it could barely pass any bills. Another breach of protocol, and this time it was the Republicans screaming.

This year, the Democrats don’t have any chips to cash. State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who is carrying this session’s bill, has included new measures. Last time, the voter ID bill was modeled off of a Georgia law. Among other things, it allowed for two non-photo forms of identification to substitute for a standard photo-ID. This year’s version of the bill is modeled after an Indiana bill and takes a more stringent approach. Under the new bill, voters would have to have some form of photo identification—no alternatives. As I’ve already written, this has some potential legal problems for Texas. 

But there remains the question of why this issue has become a third rail of sorts. There’s yet to be any real evidence that there’s a problem with voter fraud in Texas. That’s particularly true of “in-person” fraud—the kind where people show up and vote as someone they’re not. Voter ID laws only protect against that kind of behavior. Obviously IDs are no good when it comes to mail-in or absentee ballots.

For the politicians, anyway, this has everything to do with political advantage. In any electoral calculus, voter ID bills are perceived to be bad for Democrats and good for Republicans. That’s because if such bills suppress voters in any communities, they’re most likely to suppress minorities and low-income voters. “Study after study shows that photo identification laws have a negative impact on minority voters,” said Luis Figueroa, the staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He cited a study from the Brennan Center that showed one-quarter of black voters lacked an acceptable ID, compared with only eight percent of white voters.

Texas’ law “will be the most restrictive voter identification law in the nation,” he said.

It will almost undoubtedly pass. And if Democratic suspicions are right, it’ll leave Republicans with an added edge in future elections. As if they needed it.