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Ruling offers narrow victory to Texas voter ID critics

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Ruling offers narrow victory to Texas voter ID critics

  • Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

Texas' four-year-old voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act but is not a "poll tax" barred under the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled that the Texas voter ID law has a "discriminatory effect" that violates the 50-year old federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting, but it is not an unconstitutional "poll tax."

The ruling, a narrow victory for critics of the law, prolonged a long-winding legal battle over legislation that some called the strictest in the nation.

The three-judge panel's unanimous decision sent the case back to a lower court, which will decide whether lawmakers intended to discriminate when they approved the law and will decide how Texas should fix its problems. But for now, the law stands as is.

In a statement Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to continue to fight for the voter ID law.

"In light of ongoing voter fraud, it is imperative that Texas has a voter ID law that prevents cheating at the ballot box," he said.

The case centered on whether Texas intentionally discriminated against Hispanics and African-Americans when it passed the legislation – Senate Bill 14 – in 2011.

The law requires most citizens (some, like people with disabilities, can be exempt) to show one of a handful of forms of allowable photo identification before their election ballots can be counted. Acceptable forms include a state driver's license or ID card that is not more than 60 days expired at the time of voting, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. The acceptable list is shorter than any other state's.

Despite being passed in 2011, the state's new rules didn't take effect 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 preclearance when changing election laws.

In October, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi ruled that Texas' voter ID law "constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax." The state appealed the ruling to the 5th Circuit, arguing that the law improves ballot security and prevents election fraud. The 5th Circuit heard arguments in April.

Ramos found clear racial disparities between those who have IDs under SB 14 and those who do not, and she said the law continued a legacy of state-sponsored discrimination in Texas.

Wednesday's opinion upheld those findings.

"The district court thoroughly evaluated the 'totality of the circumstances,' each finding was well-supported, and the State has failed to contest many of the underlying factual findings," Judge Catharina Haynes wrote.

"We conclude that the district court did not clearly err in determining that SB 14 has a discriminatory effect on minorities' voting rights in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Experts say 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 must present a copy of their birth certificate.

Searching for and obtaining copies of birth certificates can cost $2 to $47. That's partly why the law's opponents – supported by Ramos' ruling – called Texas' law a poll tax, outlawed by 14th and 24th Amendments of the Constitution.

Texas lawmakers sought to address this issue during the last legislative session, however, passing Senate Bill 983, which allows Texans to obtain birth certificates free of charge – if they specify that it's for an election ID.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law after Ramos ruled and after oral arguments in the 5th Circuit case, in which Judge Catharina Haynes sounded perplexed that lawmakers had not already made the law more palatable to critics.

The state argued that the new law rendered the poll tax argument moot.

Plaintiffs in the case, led by U.S. Rep.Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, argued that the issue was still in play, because the law operated for nearly two years and because it will take Texans a while to learn about how it works.

In the latest ruling, the appeals court said SB 14 wasn't a poll tax in the first place.

"It did not "impose a material requirement solely on those who refuse[d]" to pay a poll tax, as proscribed by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment," Haynes wrote in the ruling. "Rather, it drew from the State's power to set voter qualifications by requiring all voters to present a valid form of photo identification at the polls."

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