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Texas voter ID law violates Voting Rights Act, court rules

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Texas voter ID law violates Voting Rights Act, court rules

  • Illustration by Cheryl Gerber/Todd Wiseman/TexasTribune

Texas’ voter identification law violates the U.S. law prohibiting racial discrimination in elections, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday. 

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings that the 2011 voter ID law — which stipulates the types of photo identification election officials can and cannot accept at the polls — does not comply with the Voting Rights Act.

The full court's ruling delivered the strongest blow yet to what is widely viewed as the nation’s strictest voter ID law. Under the law, most citizens (some, like people with disabilities, can be exempt) must show one of a handful of types of identification before their ballots can be counted: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. 

Texas is among nine states categorized as requiring "strict photo ID," and its list of acceptable forms is the shortest.

Texas’ losing streak continued in its efforts to defend its law, fighting challenges from the U.S. Department of Justice, minority groups and voting rights advocates. Wednesday's ruling did not immediately halt the voter ID law, which has been in effect since 2013. The judges kicked that decision back to a lower court.

In a statement on Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling “unfortunate.”

“It is imperative that the State government safeguards our elections and ensures the integrity of our democratic process. Preventing voter fraud is essential to accurately reflecting the will of Texas voters during elections,” he said. 

Experts have closely watched the case, calling it one of two such battles that the U.S. Supreme Court could ultimately settle — helping to determine the point that states — which assert they are protecting the integrity of elections — cross over into disenfranchisement.

The 5th Circuit is considered one of the country’s most conservative appellate courts, with 1o of its members having been appointed by Republican presidents.

The case centered on whether Texas intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and African-American voters when it passed the legislation: Senate Bill 14.

Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other proponents argued that the law was needed to bolster security at the ballot box by preventing voter fraud, but opponents cite the paucity of proven in-person voter fraud in the state and argue the intent was to undercut the electoral strength of the state’s growing minority population — people less likely to have photo identification or the means to obtain an election certificate.

Experts have testified that more than 600,000 Texans lack such identification, though not all of them have necessarily tried to vote. Those citizens can obtain “election identification certificates” free of charge, but only if they are able to produce a copy of their birth certificate.

Texas argued that opponents of the law "had failed to identify the plaintiffs have failed to identify a single individual who faces a substantial obstacle to voting because of SB 14." In Wednesday's ruling, the majority rejected that argument.

"For one thing, the district court found that multiple Plaintiffs were turned away when they attempted to vote, and some of those Plaintiffs were not offered provisional ballots to attempt to resolve the issue," the ruling stated.

The majority also affirmed the lower court's finding that  Texas'  "lackluster educational efforts resulted in additional burdens on Texas voters."

Voting rights advocates cheered the ruling.

“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. “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.”

Gov. Rick Perry signed the law in 2011, kickstarting its convoluted journey through the federal court system.

Early legal challenges put the rules on hold until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer automatically needed federal pre-clearance when changing election laws.

In August 2015, a three-judge 5th Circuit panel ruled that the law did have a “discriminatory effect,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act, although it did not constitute a poll tax as a lower court had ruled.

Wednesday's ruling affirmed those findings, and send the case back to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

"The district court’s lengthy opinion goes through the evidence supporting its findings in great detail," according to the majority opinion on the discrimination finding. "A few examples show that the district court relied on concrete evidence regarding the excessive burdens faced by Plaintiffs in making its findings."

After each loss, Texas has appealed. Through April, Paxton’s office had spent more than $3.5 million defending the law in several lawsuits, its records show.

Texas voter ID: A convoluted legal history

Texas has spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending a Voter ID law that — depending on whom you ask — either protects the integrity of elections or disenfranchises minority voters. Here is a case-by-case-breakdown of those costs, which include court fees, expert witnesses, travel, staff time and other items. With challenges still winding through the courts, the tab will continue to grow. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office provided spending estimates in response to a public information request. The information is current as of April 2016.

Court Case Amount Spent
Texas Sues for Fed Approval
Texas v. Holder
With the federal government taking months to "pre-clear" SB 14 under the Voting Rights Act, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed this lawsuit to cut through the bureaucracy. It became irrelevant when the U.S. Supreme Court voided parts of the Voting Rights Act.
$1.7 million
Voter ID Critics Sue Texas
Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
After a separate Voting Rights Act ruling allowed SB 14 to go into effect, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey filed this suit in an attempt to block the law, which he alleges is discriminatory.
$1.7 million
Feds Sue Texas over Voter ID
The U.S. Department of Justice filed this lawsuit seeking to block the ID law. It was later merged with the Veasey case.
Minority Groups Challenge Texas Law
Texas NAACP Branches et al. v. Steen et al.
The Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus filed this lawsuit against the ID law. It also was later merged with the Veasey case.
No records found, Attorney General says
Texas Judge Sues Texas over Voter ID
Meyers v. Texas
Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers sued Texas in state courts, claiming that the Texas Constitution allows lawmakers to "detect and punish" voter fraud but does not allow laws aimed specifically at preventing the crime. He later dropped his suit

Senate Bill 14 requires voters to present one of seven forms of photo ID at the polls: a Texas driver's license, state personal identification card, state license to carry a handgun, U.S. military identification card, U.S. citizenship certificate, U.S. passport or Texas Election Identification Certificate. The law is considered the nation’s strictest because the list of acceptable IDs is narrower than any other state’s. Texas has spent more than five years defending the law in court. The timeline below chronicles those battles.

  • May 27, 2011
  • Voter ID Signed into Law
  • Gov. Rick Perry declared voter ID legislation an "emergency item," and SB 14 sailed through the Legislature on the way to his desk. The new law had to receive "pre-clearance" from the U.S. Department of Justice before it could take effect under a section of the Voting Rights Act, the federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. At that time, Texas was on the list of states and counties with a history of discrimination that were subject to federal scrutiny of any changes in voting laws.
  • Jan. 23, 2012
  • Texas Sues for Federal Approval
  • Texas v. Holder
  • For months, the U.S. Department of Justice refused to render a decision on the law. Aiming to cut through that bureaucracy, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued. Abbott argued that because the U.S. Supreme Court already decided that Indiana's photo ID law passed constitutional muster, the Texas law should be approved — but opponents pointed out that the Texas law is considerably stricter.
  • Aug. 30, 2012
  • Federal Judges Reject Texas Law
  • Texas v. Holder
  • A panel of judges on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia handed Texas its first setback in the case when it rejected the voter ID law, concluding that its requirements would "likely have a retrogressive effect" on minority voting.
  • June 25, 2013
  • Texas Voter ID Takes Effect
  • In a separate voting rights case — Shelby County v. Holder — the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, voiding the formula that put Texas on the list of states needing federal approval for new election laws. That ruling allowed SB 14 to take effect.
  • June 26, 2013
  • Voter ID Critics Sue Texas
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • The Shelby County decision prompted of flurry of new challenges to the Texas law, including a lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, who asked federal judges to block SB 14 as the litigation unfolded.
  • Aug. 22, 2013
  • U.S. Justice Department Sues Texas as Well
  • U.S.A. v. Texas et al.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice joined the legal effort against Texas. “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time. The justice department also targeted Texas' redistricting maps.
  • Sept. 17, 2013
  • Minority Groups Challenge the Law
  • Texas NAACP Branches et al. v. John Steen et al.
  • Two more groups joined the fight against SB 14: the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus. They filed a federal lawsuit in Corpus Christi.
  • Sept. 11, 2014
  • Texas Judge Files His Own Lawsuit
  • Meyers v. Texas
  • Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers made a different type of argument against the voter ID requirements when he challenged them in Texas courts. In his suit, filed in Dallas County, the Republican-turned-Democrat argued that the Texas Constitution gives lawmakers power to "detect and punish" election fraud only when it has already occurred but and does not mention preventing election fraud among legislative powers.
  • Oct. 9, 2014
  • District Judge Strikes Down Requirements
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • After a lengthy trial, opponents of the Texas law scored a victory in a ruling from U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos. Texas imposed the requirements “with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose," she ruled, and the law "constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.” The ruling came just two weeks before the start of early voting in a general election featuring a race for governor. She ordered Texas to drop the ID requirements for the elections, and Texas quickly appealed.
  • Oct. 14, 2014
  • ID Requirements Reinstated
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • Days later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision, keeping the rules in place for the 2014 election. "The judgment below substantially disturbs the election process of the State of Texas just nine days before early voting begins," the court wrote of Ramos' ruling. That ruling, however, only answered the immediate question regarding the law's status during the election. A three-judge panel heard oral arguments on the broader issues months later.
  • Aug. 5, 2015
  • Appeals Panel Rules Against Texas
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • The 5th Circuit panel handed plaintiffs a victory, but a narrower one than Ramos offered. The law has "discriminatory effect," the judges ruled, but it is not a "poll tax." Texas appealed that ruling.
  • March 9, 2016
  • Court Accepts Texas Appeal
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • All 15 judges of the 5th Circuit agreed to hear the state's appeal.
  • April 29, 2016
  • Supreme Court Keeps Law Intact — For Now
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • The U.S. Supreme Court denied plantiffs's request to block SB 14 during the next elections but left the door open for them to ask again if the 5th Circuit doesn’t rule by July 20.
  • July 20, 2016
  • Court Affirms Texas Voting Law Violates Voting Rights Act
  • Veasey v. Abbott (previously v. Rick Perry et al.)
  • The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings that the 2011 voter ID law does not comply with the Voting Rights Act.
  • Source: Texas Attorney General's Office
  • Credit: Lindsay Carbonell

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