AUSTIN (AP) – Democrats and Republicans resumed their disagreements Friday over a voter identification law as state legislators set out to learn how widespread voter fraud is in Texas.
Lawmakers signalled a new fight was brewing for the 2009 legislative session as they questioned voting experts before the House Elections Committee.
Despite fears that non-citizens and other illegal voters are showing up at polling places, research shows those cases make up only a small portion of voting fraud, said Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat.
But two Republicans on the committee, Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler and Dwayne Bohac of Houston, suggested any case of voter impersonation or non-citizen voting is too many.
"If five or 10 people cast votes fraudulently, that means something to me because every vote is sacred," Bohac said.
Efforts to pass a voter ID bill last year divided the Legislature along partisan lines. A bill that would have required photo identification for voting ultimately failed in a Senate stalemate. Leading Republicans want to press it again.
Opponents compare it to the outlawed poll tax, contending that it costs money to arrange for identification and that it would discriminate against the elderly, disabled and minorities.
"Some claim that voter fraud is epidemic. That is clearly not the case, as every single reputable study of the issue has found," Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, said in prepared remarks.
Rep. Joe Farias, a San Antonio Democrat, said the committee should pledge not to endanger the vote of any eligible Texan. He said in his district many Hispanic families have a tradition of voting together on Election Day and that he doesn't know how many elderly family members have photo identification.
"But they are just as American as you and me," he said.
Of the 108 potential voter fraud cases referred to the Texas Attorney General's Office since Aug. 2002, 22 were prosecuted, said Deputy Attorney General Eric Nichols. Those prosecutions included 14 for alleged unlawful mail-in ballots and three for alleged polling place misconduct.
Berman noted that one case can involve many different people. He pointed to a Duval County case in which 500 voter registration applications were rejected.
In Calhoun County, a candidate was found to have rounded up a number of voter registration applicants, seven of whom were not U.S. citizens, Nichols said. The defendant was found to have lied to the non-citizens about the citizenship voting requirement. Two voted in a party primary.
Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt painted a picture of even more widespread voting fraud.
"It shouldn't be a debate in this body that voter fraud cases exist — period," said Bettencourt, who presented documents representing what he said were 381 cases of alleged voter fraud in his county, most of them over the past eight years.
Some showed dead people voting, such as one who person who died in 1983 but was shown voting 13 years later, Bettencourt said. There were four non-citizens who voted, he said.
Under current Texas law, a voter can cast a ballot by showing only his or her voter registration card. If the registration card has been misplaced, the voter can show other identification, like as a drivers' license.
Non-citizens can get a Texas drivers' license if they are legal residents.
Democratic legislators suggested that current law is sufficient to deal with voter fraud. Several people testified that if Texas had access to a federal registry showing citizenship status it would help determine which non-citizens are mistakenly on voter registration rolls.
Indiana, Georgia and Florida have laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, and Arizona has a law requiring those registering to vote to show proof of citizenship, according to a panel of voter ID opponents from out of state who testified.
Eligible American voters are hurt by voter ID and proof of citizenship laws, said Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. He said there are only a few isolated cases of voter fraud and that he doesn't want Texas legislators to be "sold a lot of snake oil" by proponents of voter ID.
"Americans are struck and killed by lightning more often," he said, "and there are far more UFO sightings every year than even reports of the sorts of fraud that photo ID, for example, can fix."