AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A weakened Texas voter ID law moved closer to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk on Tuesday with the state House approving legislation that waters down an original version that a judge compared to a "poll tax" and ruled had intentionally discriminated against minorities.
Republicans are pushing changes with urgency: the Texas Legislature has less than a week left to pass bills before adjourning until 2019, and federal courts that have confronted the state over voting rights in recent years are watching.
The new version passed by the GOP-controlled Texas House doesn't expand the list of acceptable photo identifications — meaning gun licenses remain sufficient proof to vote, but not college student IDs. In April, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos again ruled that the strict requirements disadvantaged minorities, effectively dampening the electoral power of Texas' surging Hispanic population.
But Republicans say virtually no one will be turned away now. The new version would allow people who lack a required ID to cast a ballot if they sign an affidavit and bring paperwork that shows their name and address, such as a bank statement or utility bill.
Democrats balked at the inclusion of criminal penalties for lying on the affidavit, saying voters could be prosecuted over making honest mistakes on the form.
"I know a court has ruled otherwise but as someone who was here in 2011, I don't believe any of us intended to discriminate," said Republican state Rep. Phil King, who carried the changes in the House.
The new Texas law would closely track with changes imposed by a federal appeals court before the 2016 election. King said he hopes the law is now improved to the point "that the court will say 'good job.'"
But courts may remain dissatisfied. Federal courts have taken Texas to task over voting rights this year — in March, a separate three-judge panel in San Antonio ruled that Republicans racially gerrymandered congressional districts in 2011, the same year the voter ID law passed.
The rulings have raised the potential of Texas becoming the first state dragged back under federal oversight since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the federal Voting Rights Act, which had required states with troubled racial histories to submit election changes for approval.
Ramos has scheduled a June hearing in Corpus Christi. Abbott last weekend took the unusual step of declaring the voter ID bill a legislative priority with only days remaining to get the measure to his desk.
The Texas Legislature adjourns on Monday.
Abbott and other Texas Republicans have continued pressing the need for voting safeguards in the face of court setbacks. In February, a Mexican national, Rosa Maria Ortega, was sentenced to eight years in prison for voter fraud — a stark sentence, given that voter fraud convictions are rare and often result in probation. Her attorney said she was green card holder who was brought to the U.S. as a baby and mistakenly believed she was eligible to vote.
Under the modified ID law, knowingly lying on an affidavit to vote would be a misdemeanor, which Democrats argued could keep people at home on Election Day over fear of incorrectly filling out the form.
"No person should have to fear losing their freedom by going to vote," said Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero, whose Fort Worth district is 80 percent Hispanic. "We are beginning to chill who goes out to vote."
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