Kevin Sieff (The Brownsville Herald)
BROWNSVILLE -- Proposed changes in the state's voting laws could force thousands of South Texans to prove their citizenship in order to vote in local, state and national elections.
During the coming legislative session, Texas Republicans plan to introduce a measure that would target perpetrators of voter fraud, especially non-citizens. The stringent voting regulations -- dubbed the "voter suppression bill" by opponents -- are already being discussed by Texas state representatives.
On Friday, members of the House's elections committee met at the University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College to take testimony related to voting reform.
If voters are required to provide proof of citizenship - as last year's failed House Bill 626 would have mandated -- South Texans will likely be among the most adversely affected.
Many Rio Grande Valley residents delivered by midwives are currently struggling to get passports because of U.S. State Department suspicions that their birth certificates were fraudulently provided. See ACLU Lawsuit
At the hearing Friday, immigration attorney Lisa Brodyaga estimated thousands of passport applicants -- almost all of them South Texas residents -- are struggling to prove they were born in the United States. If voters are required to provide proof of citizenship, many worry the same people will be disenfranchised.
"These cases reveal serious flaws with the proposal to require proof of citizenship in order to vote," said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, the chairman of Friday's hearing.
But House Republicans continue to stress the importance of voting reform.
In a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote that "serious allegations of voter fraud have persisted, especially in South Texas, for more than a century."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has made it clear that cracking down on voter fraud will be one of his priorities this session, said Rich Parsons, a spokesperson for Dewhurst.
"He wants to make sure that only U.S. citizens are casting their vote in U.S. elections," Parsons said.
In addition to the proof of citizenship requirement, House Republicans have also pushed a voter-identification bill that would require voters to present government-sanctioned photo identification, such as a driver's license, at the polls, in addition to a valid voter registration card.
But two recent studies found that voter-identification requirements could keep current voters away from the polls.
In 2006, the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that 25 percent of African-Americans, 18 percent of seniors over 65, and 15 percent of voters earning under $35,000 a year do not have government-issued photo identification.
A study commissioned by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, conducted by researchers from Rutgers and Ohio State universities, found that in 2004, states with voter-identification laws experienced a drop in turnout, including a 10 percent drop in Hispanic voters.