AUSTIN — Texas voters began casting ballots Tuesday to decide several ballot measures, including a proposed $2 billion state water plan, but not before they were legally required to show a photo ID at the polls for the first time.
Although election officials weren't expecting a large voter turnout to settle the water plan issue and eight other proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, they said early voting was nearly double what it was two years ago, showing concerns about the voter ID requirements were overblown.
Houston voters were deciding whether to save the shuttered Astrodome and a seat in the Texas House was up for grabs in a special election in Austin. And by 7 p.m., when polls close statewide, voters in the Houston suburb of Katy would decide whether to approve what would be the state's most extravagant high school football complex, at a cost of $69 million.
At a Houston nursing home serving as a polling location, election judge Stelena Evans said 40 people voted in the first two hours and that everyone had come with an ID.
"Apparently, people have really paid attention," Evans said.
The first Texas elections under a disputed new photo ID law provided a distinctive flair to an off-year election that typically draw small turnouts and provide little drama.
Voters must present photo identification — such as a driver's license, a passport or a military ID — to cast ballots. Republican state leaders boasted about early voting turnout in response to Democrats and opponents who had tried to blocking the law passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2011.
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running to replace Gov. Rick Perry in 2014, said critics had "run out of claims" about alleged hardships the mandate would create.
"I haven't ever seen anything that was overhyped as much as some partisan efforts to overhype concerns about this when, in reality, there has been no problems whatsoever," said Abbott, who defended the voter ID law in court.
Juan Quiroz, 66, said a poll worker in the Rio Grande Valley city of San Juan caught a discrepancy between the name printed on his driver's license and the one on the voter rolls. He was still able to cast a ballot and said resolving the ID issue wasn't much of a hassle.
"I've always voted and never had any problem, but they're really looking at the ID name," Quiroz said.
Early voting nearly doubled from 2011, when the last off-year elections were held in Texas, according to state officials. More than 317,000 people have already voted in the state's 15 largest counties, up from 168,000 early voters two years ago.
Abbott and Secretary of State John Steen pointed to the nearly twofold increase in recent voter turnout as a response to critics who say such voter ID requirements cause problems and are meant to disenfranchise voter blocs that tend to back Democrats. Cases of in-person voter fraud are rare, and critics of such voter ID laws say they amount to a solution in search of a problem.
Democrats and opponents of Texas' photo identification requirement — which was delayed a year until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law this summer — said they would be watching closely Tuesday to see if voters were being turned away or otherwise disenfranchised.
Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright was turned away last week when he tried to obtain proper ID with an expired driver's license or university faculty ID. He said Monday he finally obtained the documents he needed to vote.
Wright, 90, said he was concerned about the "nuisance" involved in the process. He says prospective voters should be welcomed, not distrusted.
"It's unfortunate ... that we look for ways to disqualify people," Wright said.
Steen said the attention surrounding the rollout of the ID law might be driving more voters to the polls.
Getting the most attention on the ballot is Proposition 6, which would draw down $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to build water pipelines and reservoirs across drought-parched Texas.
The measure has attracted the most visibility and campaign funds, drawing support from business and environmental groups alike. Some conservatives oppose using the state's savings account to finance large-scale construction projects, while others are concerned the money could be misused.
"I voted yes," said Valerie Brock, 50, an attorney in Houston. "I remember the drought. That's why."
Associated Press Writers Nomaan Merchant in Dallas, Will Weissert in Austin, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston and Christopher Sherman in San Juan contributed to this report.