Texas Voter ID Law Thrown Out By Federal Court
A federal court has rejected Texas’s new voter ID law, which voting rights advocates said could have hurt hundreds of thousands of voters by requiring that they present a narrow range of government-issued photo IDs to get a polling place ballot.
This is the second big defeat for Texas this week. On Monday, a federal court ruled that the GOP-led state's redrawn legislative and congressional districts also discriminated against minorities.
Both rulings are a clear victory for voting rights. They show the power of federal voting rights laws, which Texas Republicans have been seeking to overturn through both of these cases. This week’s rulings also show that recent efforts by mostly GOP-led states to make it significantly harder for millions of eligible Americans to cast ballots this fall are steadily being reversed by federal judges. A court in Florida this week also overturned that state's new law to more strictly regulate voter registration drives.
The Texas voter ID law was particularly odious to voting rights advocates. It would have let people show a gun permit to obtain a ballot but not a university ID card, for example. However, much of the trial testimony concerned how the law would disproportionately burden communities of color and poor people. The Texas Conference of the NAACP, Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives (MALC), the Justice Department and others, prevailed against the Texas Attorney General.
“[U]ncontested record evidence conclusively shows that the implicit costs of obtaining SB 14-qualifying ID will fall most heavily on the poor and that a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Texas live in poverty,” the Court's ruling said. “We therefore conclude that SB 14 is likely to lead to ‘retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.’”
Voting rights groups were quick to applaud the ruling, which Texas is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is an open question if the high court will hear the case before November. But for now, voting rights groups were more than pleased.
“This decision protects free and fair elections,” said Benjamin Jealous, President & CEO of the NAACP. “The wholesale attacks on the rights of voters across our nation disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of senior citizens, students, veterans and people of color cannot be tolerated. These massive voter suppression efforts demonstrate the continued need for the Voting Rights Act.”
“This again is bipartisan vindication of what we have been saying in Texas all along,” stated Gary Bledsoe, president of the NAACP Texas State Conference. “The law was so broad and unreasonable that clearly its goal was to suppress minority votes and thereby change the nature of the Texas electorate. It is sad that things like this continue to occur instead of individuals seeking vindication of their positions by participating in our Democracy and presenting their positions in a marketplace for ideas.”
“This clear victory affirms how vital Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is in protecting minority voting rights,” said Bob Kengle, co-director, Voting Rights Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We should not be making it harder for millions of eligible Americans, including seniors and minorities, to participate in our democracy. Clearly the court agrees.”
A fast analysis of the decision by Rick Hasen on Election Law Blog noted that the court found the Texas voter ID law would have been as burdensome among low-income whites as well as minorities. The court said the burdens placed on the poor of any ethnicity, such as traveling to obtain needed documents and related costs to get the required ID, were excessive, violating the Federal Voting Rights Act.
“The court does a very good job illustrating the problems with social science methods in trying to figure out just how many people lack voter IDs,” Hasen wrote. “It rejected evidence from both sides, and it does show just how hard it is to get a handle on the relationship between voter ID and turnout.”
Hasen also noted that the Court believed that Texas’ law went too far—but that was not the case with other state-adopted voter ID standards, such as in Georgia. “The court was very careful to show that not all voter ID laws are created equal, that states may have ample good reasons to impose voter ID laws, and that such laws can be put in place in ways which do not discriminate against minority voters.”
And although the Court reprimanded Texas for its legal tactics, it left for another day the biggest question of all in Texas’ efforts to overturn federal voting rights law. Texas has argued that the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which allows the Justice Department to block state changes in voting if they are discriminatory, is unconstitutional.
The Washington Court said it would address that claim shortly. While legal scholars do not think Texas will prevail on that claim, everybody following voting rights litigation in 2012 has learned there is no telling what any court will do.