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Texas voter identification law in limbo after federal judge’s ruling

CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF

AUSTIN — Despite uncertainty about the fate of maintaining the Texas voter identification law, local election and party officials expect few issues at the polls during the Nov. 4 election.

Ever since a ruling Oct. 9 by Corpus Christi-based U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, a President Obama appointee, officials have squared off with legal measures to attempt to solicit support for their side from an appellate court.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is the Republican nominee for governor, is defending the law and has asked the Fifth Court of Appeals to stay the ruling and continue the law enacted through Senate Bill 14.

Opponents are filing legal briefs to try to persuade the same court to allow the ruling to stand.

“There very well could be many more rulings to come on this very topic,” said Burnet County Democratic Party chairman Guy Stuart. “It all depends on the justices hearing the case and their take on the issues.”

State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who authored the bill, said in a statement that he received reassurances the law would stay in tact for the midterm elections.

“The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that photo voter identification laws are constitutional. … I have been in contact with the Office of the (Texas) Attorney General, who will take all legal action necessary to avoid voter confusion and ensure that the law is in effect for the election,” read a statement from the senator’s office.

The lawsuit, brought on by groups, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the League of United Latin America Citizens (LULAC), came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2013, which overturned a section of the Voting Rights Act that stated Texas needed permission from the federal attorney general’s office to make changes to state voting laws.

“This just happens to be a partisan issue. There are five states which have voter ID (laws),” said Llano County Republican Party chairman Jim Simmons. “It’s all coming from the federal level, so they will try to broaden it.”

On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, the Texas secretary of state’s office ushered in the voter ID law, which required one of seven forms of photo identification for subsequent elections, including the March primaries.

Voters who did not produce a qualified ID could vote “provisionally” and were given six days to provide election officials with proof of identity for their ballots to count.

Officials in Burnet and Llano counties reported that elections remained unhampered by the ID process, and each county received fewer than a handful of provisional ballots.

As early voting approaches Oct. 20-31, election administrators are tasked with running a problem-free process no matter the outcome of legal proceedings.

“We’ll be watching for direction from the Texas secretary of state’s office, and, in the meantime, we are going to be prepared for whatever happens with photo ID,” said Burnet County election administrator Barbara Agnew. “We’ve had the understanding for months that the court case may change our procedures, change the forms that we use, so we’ve been prepared for either scenario.”

She added the type of identification allowed could be expanded.

“Voters are still going to need to bring an identification with them,” Agnew said. “We’re just not sure if it’s going to be one of the seven forms of photo ID that are listed under Senate Bill 14, the state photo ID law, or we’ll go back to the previous list, which included many more types of ID.”

As the legal wrangling continues, opponents have revived the debate over the voter ID issue.

The Texas Department of Public Safety offers a free Elections Identification Card (EIC) to voters; however, opponents believe the cost of proving one’s identity to obtain the ID puts a “burden” on citizens.

“It can affect minority communities, the young who often move, the disabled, the elderly, many demographic groups, many voters,” Stuart said. “I think honestly that our voting population does not exercise their rights enough. I think making it harder for folks is kind of sending the wrong message.”

Simmons said he believes a higher court ruling will favor the Texas law.

“People have to have an ID to get Social Security, to cash checks, use credit cards, in order to drive. When you go into a bar, you show an ID. Anything age-related requires an ID,” he said. “The whole point is to keep the integrity of the election. It’s going to end up in the (U.S.) Supreme Court, and it’s going to be fine. It should be a non-issue.”

connie@thepicayune.com

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