By JAY ROOT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
AUSTIN — Texas Republican leaders have scored their first major legislative victory of the 2011 session with Senate passage of a bill requiring most residents to present photo identification before being allowed to vote.
The legislation, which exempts certain disabled people and those 70 and older, passed the Senate along partisan lines after majority Republicans shot down one Democratic amendment after another. One last-minute change both sides could agree on in the pro-gun Texas Legislature: a provision adding a concealed weapons permit as a valid form of identification.
Republicans say tougher voter ID laws are needed to prevent fraud. Democrats say the effort is designed to boost GOP margins by keeping Democratic-leaning voters, less likely to have ID, away from the polls.
The bill now moves to the state House, where passage is considered likely. GOP Gov. Rick Perry supports the measure.
"We did what we think is good for the people of Texas," said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the author of the bill. "We're very confident that the bill we're passing will be fair to voters."
Democrats knew they were going to lose. The measure was approved 19-11, with all Republicans backing it and all but one absent Democrat voting no. Republicans also have a 101-49 House majority. Perry had already given the measure fast-track status last week.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, leader of the Senate Democrats, predicted the U.S. Justice Department would block implementation of the legislation under provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, leader of the Senate Republicans, said the U.S. Supreme Court has already blessed the kind of legislation passed Wednesday night. He predicted it would sail past any legal challenges.
The bill is tougher than a 2009 version that was blocked by Democrats. It requires voters to present a valid form of state or federally issued photo identification.
A driver's license, personal ID card, military ID, passport or concealed handgun permit would be accepted. Disabled Texans who present county election authorities with a doctor's letter would be exempt.
The ID change would cost the state about $2 million to pay for training elections officials and public advertising to announce the change. Democrats charged that's an unnecessary expense in a year when lawmakers are grappling with a budget shortfall of about $15 billion and facing deep cuts in education, health care and social services.
Dewhurst, who is expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2012, has pushed for the voter ID bill for two sessions. He said the $2 million could be covered by a federal grant.
"At the end of the day, there's nothing more important than protecting the sanctity of everyone's right to vote," Dewhurst said.
Democrats had laid out a string of proposed amendments to what some have called the most stringent voter ID bill in the country.
The votes fell along party lines, with Democrats attempting through nearly 40 amendments to relax the bill's strict requirements.
Citing testimony from civil rights activists and advocates for the disadvantaged, Democrats said the bill would negatively affect minorities, the elderly and the disabled.
Democrats tried gutting the bill first. Then, failing that, they fought to allow more forms of ID for voting purposes.
Fraser, the bill's author, rejected most of the proposals, including the addition of student IDs and Medicare cards. He allowed an amendment proposed by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, that would allow a 60-day window for expired driver's licenses.