A Fort Worth woman who has been used as an example of why voter ID laws are needed pleaded guilty twice last week in a voter fraud case.
On Tuesday, as Hazel Brionne Woodard lay partially unconscious in a Tarrant County courtroom, she muttered to paramedics that she confessed to a crime that she did not commit.
Woodard, a 2011 Democratic precinct chair candidate, had admitted to having her son vote on behalf of his father on June 18, 2011. Voter fraud allegations arose after the boy’s father showed up to cast his own ballot later that same day.
Woodward was sentenced to two years of deferred adjudication probation on her initial plea, but Judge Ruben Gonzales did not make it official because of her medical issues.
Woodard was back in the courtroom Friday, when Gonzales gave her an opportunity to withdraw her guilty plea and have a jury trial, saying he had a “strong concern” that she did not admit to her crime.
Woodard then readmitted her guilt and took the probation offer.
“There is no doubt that after today that you admit to this crime,” Gonzales said Friday.
Woodward’s plea was the latest twist in a case that has been used as an example of what’s wrong with the Texas voting system. When she was indicted in 2011 — under the name Hazel Woodward James —lawmakers argued that her behavior was why the Texas voter ID law was needed.
In May 2012, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted about the Woodard case: “Think voter fraud doesn’t exist? Dem precinct chairwoman candidate indicted for voter fraud in Ft Worth.”
Abbott, now governor, declined to comment on the case.
But by the time Woodard was indicted, the voter ID was facing the first of what would be several court challenges. The law is now being considered by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after the state appealed a federal district judge’s ruling from October that struck down the law as discriminatory. A ruling from the three-judge appeals court panel, which could send the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, is expected soon.
Even as it meanders through the halls of justice, the law was tweaked by the Texas Legislature with new legislation — signed by Gov. Abbott in May — that allows potential voters to obtain a free copy of their birth certificate, provided they use the document to get a photo ID that will allow them to vote.
The law’s opponents argue that fraud is rare and actual voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent.
Voter ID advocates say their opposition and the lower courts that have ruled against them do not understand that people need assurances that the Texas vote is valid.
The voting rights issue re-emerged on the national scene last week, when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged Washington lawmakers to pass a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act during a speech at historically black Texas Southern University in Houston. The Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and allowed some states to make significant changes in their election laws.
Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said the new birth certificate law in Texas does not address a lack of voter education, a lack of voter access and other issues including travel.
Perez also said there is no money in the new legislation to inform voters that they can get a free copy of their birth certificate.
“This is an adjustment to a very big apparatus that will barely make a dent in the problem,” Perez said.
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752
Texas Voter ID law
Currently, the voter ID law requires voters to provide one of seven kinds of photo identification to cast a ballot. Four types are available from the state Department of Public Safety: driver’s licenses, personal IDs, concealed-handgun permits and election identification certificates. Federally issued passports, citizenship certificates and military IDs are also acceptable.