In the coming weeks, Texas will become the latest state to enact a voter identification law. It's found support in an unlikely place.
Texas Rep. Aaron Peña serves a district in Hidalgo County, which borders Mexico, that is 90 percent Hispanic and has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Yet he's positioned himself as one of the leading advocates of a voter ID bill that opponents say disenfranchises exactly the kind of people who elected him.
Peña made headlines late last year when, after being elected as a Democrat, he switched to the Republican party amid its sweeping victories statewide. Now, he's the lone Republican representative from a region where all other state lawmakers are Democrats who oppose the bill.
Peña, who chairs and created the Hispanic Republican Conference, co-sponsored the voter ID legislation in the Texas House and is a member of the House Voter Identification & Voter Fraud Committee.
Under current Texas law, voters must present a registration certificate -- which lacks a photo -- at their polling place. In lieu of that, they can show a driver's license, a birth certificate or a utility bill, among other alternatives.
The bill, which would take effect in 2012, requires voters to present a photo ID as a driver's license, passport or a concealed handgun license. The bill has already passed both chambers of the legislature and will now need to emerge from a conference committee to receive Gov. Rick Perry's signature. That's expected to happen soon.
Proponents of the bill, including Peña, say it will help combat fraud and restore confidence to the election process. His support comes at a time when the voter ID laws are gaining traction nationwide. This year, 32 legislatures have considered legislation that would create or expand voter ID laws. There's just three states -- Oregon, Vermont and Wyoming -- that lack a voter ID law and haven't considered one this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But critics say there is a lack of evidence that widespread election fraud in the form of voter impersonation even exists in Texas. The real problem is fraud via mail-in ballots, which voter ID doesn't address. They also say the bill makes voting unnecessarily complicated and creates a barrier for disenfranchised populations like poor people and Hispanics.
Peña says the bill addresses all those criticisms, and he is crusading to reduce election fraud and public corruption -- two things his South Texas region is famous for.
Governing spoke with Peña about voter ID, his critics and other steps the legislature should take to combat fraud. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Governing: How has your experience in South Texas, an area known for allegations of voter fraud, affected your outlook on this issue?
Aaron Peña: If it wasn't for my experience in South Texas, I'd probably be like some of the other members. Fraud is so rampant. It is like termites that have eaten up a tree. (Voter fraud) is like a tax on poor people because it elects people who are ... involved in corruption. We have a significant number of politicians that are eventually indicted. They use government contracts to benefit the machine. It's a self-perpetuating system. It has to end. Somebody has to be brave enough to stand up and say 'no more.'
Everybody, including well-established organizations, are now participating (in questionable election techniques) because they feel like they have to. It's an escalating war of money and corruption.
Governing: How have other state lawmakers from your region, who oppose voter ID, reacted to your support of the bill?
Peña: Some of them have privately threatened to run people against me. One person yelled at me on the floor to leave South Texas altogether, that I wasn't wanted any more. They are so addicted to the system, they don't know how to live without it.
Governing: What's your reaction to the criticism that voter ID will disenfranchise poor people and minorities?
Peña: We provide free identification. The evidence in the committee is that, in states that have done this, because of the (restored) confidence, more minorities and more voters vote in elections that have voter ID in place.
Most of the globe has voter identification. Mexico has a biometric voter card. This is in nearly everything we do, from renting videos to cashing checks to almost every transaction we participate in. Even getting a hotel room. It is not an inconvenience. People are not that helpless.
I, quite frankly, think it's going to bring a sense of confidence that has been lost. Many of the same people that complain are unwilling to attach their name or file bills to address the real corruption that's out there.
I've filed 30 bills. The committee heard six of them yesterday that deal with other aspects (of voter fraud) -- mail-in ballots, voter assistance, and other things like that. I'm simply going down the list of all the things I've learned working with the Attorney General and other people who are equally fed up and trying to get this thing solved.
Governing: In a few years, what will be the ultimate impact of voter ID? Will it revolutionize elections and eliminate fraud?
Peña: I think its strength is more in its symbolism. It marks the beginning of an effort to retake our elections and bring integrity to them. Much of the voter fraud that occurs out there is through mail-in ballots and something called voter assistance. We deal with a lot of it. Human beings -- especially when there's a financial motive -- are very creative.
In the end the best protection against this is voter participation and voter awareness. But these (bills) certainly provide the tools for prosecutors.
Governing: Many states that have pursued voter ID laws have found those laws challenged in court. Will this one hold up?
Peña: Almost all the bills dealing with the other areas of voter fraud were supported by the left and the right, at least out in the open. In private, many movers in the Democratic Party are aware that they don't have much of a structure and are heavily dependent on the political machines. So they privately will fight against them. But I think the general public, on the left and the right, is in favor of honesty in elections.
Governing: How soon will this wind up on Gov. Perry's desk?
Peña: It will be done rather rapidly. They haven't appointed the conferees in the House. I want to make sure this happens. I hate when people pull out the racial arguments. This is not racial at all. It's the mark of desperation when they just constantly bring up these things.