Court Strikes Down Texas Voter ID Law — What’s Next?

A sign lists voter ID requirements for the primary election in Arlington, Texas, in March 2016.

A sign lists voter ID requirements for the primary election in Arlington, Texas, in March 2016. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

July 20, 2016

A federal appeals court ruled against Texas’ voter ID law on Wednesday, knocking down what was considered the most restrictive law of its kind in the country.

It’s not yet clear what the rules will be for voters going to the polls in Texas this year. What is certain, however, is that the law in its current state cannot remain in effect for the 2016 presidential election.

The appeals court determined that in passing a discriminatory law, the state violated section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. It also ordered a district court to consider whether lawmakers did so intentionally, which could force the state to once again submit to oversight of its voting laws.

The decision comes as voters in nine other states will face more restrictive ID requirements at the polls than in the last presidential election.

Voting rights advocates hailed the Texas decision, which upheld a previous federal district court ruling, as a major step forward. “This is an amazing outcome. It’s a justified outcome. It’s a deserved outcome,” said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program. “My hope is that this puts this issue to rest so the voters of Texas are able to vote without having to deal with a discriminatory and burdensome law.”

In a statement, Texas’ attorney general Ken Paxton said that it was “imperative” that the state ensures the integrity of elections. “Preventing voter fraud is essential to accurately reflecting the will of Texas voters during elections, and it is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety,” he said.

Texas’ law allowed seven forms of valid state or federal ID, and no exceptions for those who lacked an ID or the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one.

According to the federal district court, about 600,000 registered voters did not have an ID that would be acceptable under the new law — and a disproportionate number were black or Latino.

That included people like Floyd Carrier, an 83-year-old African-American man who was turned away at the polls despite having a veteran’s card, voter registration card and an expired driver’s license. Carrier was born in a rural area and didn’t have a birth certificate to obtain a new state-issued voter ID. In his small town of 1,160, the poll workers knew Carrier, but had to deny him a ballot. Carrier’s son, Calvin, testified in court that he has tried to obtain a birth certificate for his father, picking up the cost, but the old records have clerical errors that render the document unusable.

The Brennan Center further estimated that up to 1.2 million eligible residents — those who are not currently registered but might vote in the future — lacked a proper ID.

The federal appeals court considered whether the district court was right to rule that the law had a discriminatory effect, and whether it was passed with discriminatory intent.

The court determined that the law did have a discriminatory effect, and it ordered the district court to fix it. That means deciding on a new voter ID process that doesn’t put an undue burden on blacks and Latinos and educating the public on how they’ll vote from now on — and in time for elections this year.

But it left it to the district court to weigh whether lawmakers had a discriminatory intent in passing the law. That might not be decided until after the election. It’s a serious question. If the district court finds this is the case, Texas could be forced to submit any voting-law changes to the federal government for approval — as it previously did under a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Texas has been fighting to implement its voter ID law for the past five years. It first passed the law in 2011, but it was blocked by the Justice Department on the grounds that it was discriminatory, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Texas appealed, and in 2012 the law was struck down by a federal court in Washington, D.C. The court found that it would have a disproportionate, discriminatory effect on black and Latino voters.

One year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the provision of the Voting Rights Act that forced states to submit their laws for pre-clearance to the Justice Department. Texas’ then-attorney general and now governor, Greg Abbott, said its voter ID law would take effect “immediately.”

In 2014, a coalition of civil-rights groups, including the Texas NAACP and the state’s Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, as well as the Brennan Center, challenged the law in court. A federal judge ruled that the law was discriminatory, akin to a poll tax.

But Texas appealed, and an appeals court panel allowed the law to remain in effect for the 2014 midterm elections while the decision was considered.

On Wednesday, the full federal appeals court ruled that the district court’s findings that the law is discriminatory were correct, and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

While it found no “direct” evidence that the law was passed with an intent to discriminate, those who drafted and supported the law were “aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities” — but tabled resolutions that would have mitigated those effects, the court said in its decision.

The court also scrutinized the way the law was defended and passed. Texas’ main reason for introducing the voter ID law has been to prevent in-person voter fraud, for which there have been only two convictions in the decade leading up to the bill’s passage. The appeals court noted that in the past, Texas lawmakers had defended racially discriminatory voting policies, such as  all-white primaries and poll taxes, as a way to prevent voter fraud.

The court said there was evidence to suggest lawmakers were taking a similar approach here, noting that they took special steps to move the bill forward. Among them: then-Gov. Rick Perry designed the bill as emergency legislation so that it would move to the top of the legislative session. The bill was also allowed to bypass the ordinary committee process. Debate was cut, and the rule requiring two-thirds of votes was suspended. The bill was also passed without verifying the costs despite a $27 million budget shortfall.

“Such treatment was virtually unprecedented,” the court said. It added, “There remains evidence to support a finding that the cloak of ballot integrity could be hiding a more invidious purpose.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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