The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a surprising victory for voting rights advocates, ruled that Texas’s voter ID law disproportionately burdened Black and Hispanic voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.
The decision means Texas can’t enforce the law in November’s presidential election.
Wednesday’s ruling was the latest in a convoluted legal challenge to the Texas law, which conservative lawmakers passed in 2011 and is among the most stringent voter ID laws in the nation. Voting rights advocates challenged the measure almost immediately, and the law remained blocked until the Roberts Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder revived it.
The Court in Shelby struck down a key provision of the VRA, Section 4, which is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia under Section 5 of the VRA before making any changes to their election laws. States with a history of racially discriminatory voting requirements like Texas were covered by the Section 4 pre-clearance requirement before the Shelby decision.
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Within hours of the Court’s ruling in Shelby, Texas officials announced that they would begin enforcing SB 14, the restrictive voter ID law.
In response, a group of Texas voters sued Texas under a different portion of the civil rights law, arguing SB 14 violates Section 2 of the VRA, which forbids voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. Unlike Section 5 of the VRA, which requires state officials prove a voting rights law has no discriminatory intent or effect, under Section 2, the burden of proving racial discriminatory intent or effect is placed on voters to prove the restriction discriminated against their voting rights.
Both the district court and a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit agreed and found that SB 14 had a discriminatory affect in violation of Section 2 of the VRA. Texas then requested that the Fifth Circuit rehear the case en banc, with the full slate of judges on the Fifth Circuit.
The full Fifth Circuit issued that decision Wednesday, handing Texas conservatives a decisive loss.
“The record shows that drafters and proponents of SB 14 were aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities, and that they nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact,” Judge Catharina Haynes wrote for the majority.
Texas claimed that it had modeled its law after Indiana’s law, which was upheld in another challenge, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. The Fifth Circuit, however, rejected Texas’s argument, finding obvious differences between the two laws that affected its decision that Texas’s law had a discriminatory impact on people of color.
“While cloaking themselves in the mantle of following Indiana’s voter ID law, which had been upheld against a (different) challenge in Crawford, the proponents of SB 14 took out all the ameliorative provisions of the Indiana law,” Haynes wrote.
One such ameliorative provision was an indigency exception, which the GOP-dominated Texas house stripped from the law. That exception would have freed indigent people from any obligation of paying fees associated with obtaining a qualified photo ID.
Although the Fifth Circuit found that the law violates the Voting Rights Act, the Fifth Circuit did not fashion a remedy for this violation and instead, remanded the case back to the lower court, instructing it that the “remedy must be tailored to rectify only the discriminatory effect on those voters who do not have SB 14 ID or are unable to reasonably obtain such identification.”
In addition, the appeals court reversed the lower court ruling that Texas had intended to discriminate against racial minorities. The court found evidence to support such a claim, but ultimately found that the district court’s overall findings were insufficient, and sent the case back to the district court to reconsider the evidence.
Nevertheless, voting rights advocates hailed the decision as a victory.
“We have repeatedly proven—using hard facts—that the Texas voter ID law discriminates against minority voters,” Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement, according to the Texas Tribune. “The 5th Circuit’s full panel of judges now agrees, joining every other federal court that has reviewed this law. We are extremely pleased with this outcome.”
Texas Republicans, including former governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, rushed the law through the GOP-majority legislature in 2011, arguing that it was necessary to prevent voter fraud, even though voter fraud has been found to be almost nonexistent in other Republican-led investigations.
Politifact found in March of this year that since 2002, there had been 85 election fraud prosecutions, and not all of them resulted in convictions. To put that in perspective, from 2000 to 2014, some 72 million ballots were cast in Texas, not counting municipal and local elections.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, argued in 2015 that most of the Texas prosecutions would not have been prevented by the voter ID law, since the prosecutions were not for in-person voter fraud, but rather for marking someone else’s absentee ballots without their consent, fake registrations, or voting while ineligible.
“There are vanishingly few instances of voter fraud—incidents flat-out, not just prosecutions—that could be stopped by applying a rule requiring ID at the polls,” Levitt said, according to Politifact.
Opponents of SB 14 cited the near absence of proven in-person voter fraud, arguing that the law was intended to dilute the voting strength of the state’s increasing population of people of color, many of whom do not have photo identification and who would find it difficult to obtain it, as the opinion noted.
Laws requiring photo identification disparately impact people of color, students, and low-income voters, all groups who tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans.
Nevertheless, Texas conservatives continue to insist that the law was appropriately tailored to address voter fraud. “Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the process,” said Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in a statement on Wednesday, according to the Texas Tribune.
Texas may appeal to the Supreme Court and ask the high court to intervene, although given that the Roberts Court remains short one judge, a 4-4 split is possible, which would leave in place the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.
This makes two voting rights victories in as many days for voting rights advocates. A federal judge on Tuesday in Wisconsin ruled that voters who unable to comply with the state’s photo ID requirement would nevertheless be allowed to vote in the upcoming election in November.