The most contentious, most partisan issue in Texas politics at the moment isn’t the economy, as sluggish as it seems to be. Nor is it whether the state should accept federal stimulus funds—although the debate produced the memorable comment, by Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, that expanding unemployment benefits for laid-off workers was like giving crack cocaine to an addict. (“It’s like a drug dealer,” Hammond said. “The dealer gives you your first hit for free to get you hooked, and then you are addicted.”) It’s not even the proposal, pushed by Governor Rick Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, that a woman seeking an abortion be forced to view an ultrasound of her fetus.

It’s voter ID. Nothing defines the differences between the two political parties as sharply as their respective views over the integrity of the electoral process. Republicans are absolutely convinced that Democrats try to steal elections through voter fraud; Democrats believe with equal certainty that Republicans try to manipulate elections by suppressing minority turnout. Yet voter ID is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem. There are two things wrong with laws that require voters to produce a picture ID in order to be able to cast a ballot: no credible evidence that voter fraud is widespread and plenty of credible evidence that such a law will reduce minority turnout by about 3 percent. That’s a lot of votes.

Granted, the argument in favor of voter ID is hard to refute: You have to prove your identity when you cash a check or get on an airplane or pick up a will-call ticket to a ball game; why shouldn’t you have to prove your identity when you participate in the most basic ritual of democracy? The erosion of confidence in the election system, which began with the Florida recount, in 2000, adds to the public support for voter ID laws. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken two weeks before the 2008 election found that 73 percent of Minnesota voters favored a photo ID requirement and only 20 percent opposed it; the margin was even wider in Iowa, 80 percent in favor to 13 percent opposed. Obviously these margins include the support of many Democrats as well as Republicans.

To make matters more difficult for Democrats who hope to defeat voter ID in Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a photo ID law in Indiana last year. The opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, the longest-serving liberal on the court, said that “evenhanded restrictions that protect the integrity and reliability of the electoral process itself” are not invidious and that the statute did not impose “excessively burdensome requirements” on any class of voters.

Undoubtedly some voter fraud exists. The most notorious example in Texas history, of course, was the 201 late-reporting votes, in the same color ink and handwriting, from Box 13 in Jim Wells County that decided the 1948 U.S. Senate race in favor of LBJ, who was forever after known as Landslide Lyndon. (They don’t steal elections like they used to.) The best-known irregularity of the 2008 election was the voter-registration drive conducted in Clark County, Nevada, by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. Among the bogus names submitted to election officials were the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys; in addition, the registration forms had a high percentage of bogus addresses. Registration fraud, which is typically the result of low-paid canvassers trying to make their quota for the day, is easy for election officials to catch—and, indeed, agents of the Secretary of State’s and attorney general’s offices raided ACORN’s headquarters and seized computer databases and registration cards.

Republicans nationally and in Texas have tried to make the case in court that voter fraud is more than just an isolated problem. But they can’t do it. For three years during George W. Bush’s presidency (2002 to 2005), the U.S. Justice Department mounted a federal Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative, which found only 38 cases of voter fraud, resulting in only 13 convictions and 11 guilty pleas. In Texas the pickings were equally slim. Attorney General Greg Abbott received a federal grant to investigate voter fraud and other crimes, resulting in just 30 indictments and 22 prosecutions so far: all reportedly against Democrats, most involving technical violations. Indiana has never had a voter fraud prosecution in its history.

The reason that so little evidence of fraud can be found is simple: There’s no incentive for voter impersonation. The chance to influence the outcome of an election is too small; it would take an enormous number of people, all committing fraud at once, to make a difference. The real opportunity for fraud comes from mail-in ballots. An effective political machine—say, those that use politiqueras in South Texas—can work senior citizens centers and produce consequential numbers of votes by applying for mail-in ballots and making sure they’re marked and returned appropriately. But they have been exempted from previous attempts to establish a photo ID requirement in Texas.

Democrats have been able to ward off voter ID bills in the past two legislative sessions. In 2005 a bill passed the House and died peacefully in the Senate because Democrats had enough votes (11 of 31) to block it according to the long-standing tradition that bills need the support of two thirds of the members to pass. In 2007 another version reached the Senate and died a not-so-peaceful death. Republicans tried to move the bill through when only ten Democrats were present and an eleventh was ill, but after some frantic maneuvering, the ailing Democrat showed up. With tensions already high, a brouhaha erupted over whether another Democrat had left the floor during the voting. The whole thing made Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst look bad, and the Republicans came into the 2009 session determined to pass the bill. In their pre-session caucus, they decided the way to do so was to eliminate the two-thirds roadblock by amending the rules to allow the voter ID bill to be placed on the calendar by a special order. This required only a majority vote, and the Democrats could do nothing but object to being run over and offer amendments to the rules that had no chance of winning the approval of the majority party.

The high level of tension over voter ID reflects the changes in Texas politics since the first effort to pass the bill, in 2005, when Democrats appeared to pose little threat to continued Republican dominance of the state. But then came the Democrats’ sweep of the Dallas County courthouse in 2006, their gain of six House seats that year, Perry’s 39 percent showing in the governor’s race, and Bush’s falling approval ratings in Texas, and suddenly the Republicans looked not so invincible. The Democratic trend in urban and suburban Texas continues, making voter ID an issue not only for Republican primary voters but also for Republican legislators themselves as they face electoral battles with a reinvigorated and well-financed Democratic opposition. Voter ID is now a matter of Republican survival. What started out as a fear that hordes of illegal immigrants would descend on the polls—a ridiculous scenario, since illegal immigrants want nothing to do with official government activities—has now become voter suppression, pure and simple. As the leading House opponent of voter ID for the two previous sessions, Rafael Anchía, of Dallas, said to me, “If it has no impact, why would they [the Republicans] be doing it?”

How does the suppression work? Voter ID weeds out voters who have no picture ID, the largest percentage of whom are people who don’t drive. Minority voters are more likely to live in a household where there is no vehicle and thus have no need for a driver’s license. When the U.S. Justice Department examined Georgia’s voter ID bill, for instance, it found that 17.7 percent of black households had no vehicle, compared with only 4.4 percent of white households. In Wisconsin, 80 percent of white males and 81 percent of white females had driver’s licenses, compared with 45 percent of black males and 51 percent of black females.

In Texas the Senate version of the voter ID bill does provide for alternative forms of ID other than driver’s licenses: U.S. military identification, a U.S. citizenship certificate with a photo, a U.S. passport, a concealed-handgun license, or a state or national ID card. Or two of the following: a recent utility bill or bank statement, a certified copy of a birth certificate, a marriage license or divorce decree, a card indicating that the holder receives benefits from a government agency, a library card, or a hunting or fishing license. That may sound like a laundry list, but if a voter walks into a polling place with a valid registration card and nothing else, he or she is going to be allowed to cast only a provisional ballot. Who remembers to carry a utility bill to the polls?

If voter ID is going to be defeated, House members will have to be the ones to do it. This puts new Republican speaker Joe Straus, who supported voter ID in 2007, in the hot seat. He has a narrow 76—74 majority, and he is caught between his fellow Republicans, who want (and need) to pass voter ID, and his Democratic supporters, to whom it is anathema. Straus’s speakership is at risk on this bill. He could face a revolt from Republicans if he cooperates in killing it or a revolt from Democrats if he aids its passage and sends it to a conference committee with the Senate, where he will be subject to enormous pressure from Perry, Dewhurst, and GOP donors. Voter ID is a terrible idea, bad for democracy and mean-spirited to boot. We can only hope it won’t soon be the law in Texas.