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Federal Court: Texas Voter ID Law Violates Voting Rights Act | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Federal Court: Texas Voter ID Law Violates Voting Rights Act

On Tuesday, a federal court in Washington found that Texas’s redistricting maps violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and were “enacted with discriminatory purpose.” On Thursday a separate three-judge federal court panel in Washington unanimously found that Texas’s voter ID law also violated Section 5 by discriminating against minority voters.

For background, see my earlier posts “DOJ Blocks Discriminatory Texas Voter ID Law” and “Discriminatory Texas Voter ID Law Challenged in Federal Court.”

In March the Justice Department objected to Texas’s voter ID law. Among the reasons: the state admitted that between 603,892 to 795,955 registered in voters in Texas lacked government-issued photo ID, with Hispanic voters between 46.5 percent to 120 percent more likely than whites to not have the new voter ID; to obtain one of the five government-issued IDs now needed to vote, voters must first pay for underlying documents to confirm their identity, the cheapest option being a birth certificate for $22 (otherwise known as a "poll tax"); Texas has DMV offices in only eighty-one of 254 counties in the state, with some voters needing to travel up to 250 miles to obtain a new voter ID. Counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the new voter ID (Hispanics in Texas are also twice as likely as whites to not have a car).

These facts also persuaded the court to block the voter ID law. Section 5 mandates that covered jurisdictions with a history of electoral discrimination—which includes parts or all of sixteen states, including much of the South—receive approval from DOJ or a federal court in Washington for any voting-related change to ensure that it does not make it harder for minority citizens to be able to vote (known in the legal parlance as “retrogression”).

Here’s the key section from the court ruling:

Texas bears the burden of proving that nothing in SB 14 “would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.” Because all of Texas’s evidence on retrogression is some combination of invalid, irrelevant, and unreliable, we have little trouble concluding that Texas has failed to carry its burden.

To the contrary, record evidence suggests that SB 14, if implemented, would in fact have a retrogressive effect on Hispanic and African American voters. This conclusion flows from three basic facts: (1) a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID; (2) the burdens associated with obtaining ID will weigh most heavily on the poor; and (3) racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.

The court elaborated:

According to undisputed U.S. Census data, the poverty rate in Texas is 25.8% for Hispanics and 23.3% for African Americans, compared to just 8.8% for whites. This means that the burdens of obtaining [voter ID] will almost certainly fall more heavily on minorities, a concern well recognized by those who work in minority communities.

…Undisputed census data shows that in Texas, 13.1% of African Americans and 7.3% of Hispanics live in households without access to a motor vehicle, compared with only 3.8% of whites.

…while a 200 to 250 mile trip to and from a DPS [Department of Public Safety] office would be a heavy burden for any prospective voter, such a journey would be especially daunting for the working poor. Poorer citizens, especially those working for hourly wages, will likely be less able to take time off work to travel to a DPS office—a problem exacerbated by the fact that wait times in DPS offices can be as long as three hours during busy months of the year. This concern is especially serious given that none of Texas’s DPS offices are open on weekends or past 6:00 PM, eliminating for many working people the option of obtaining an EIC [“election identification certificate”] on their own time. A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote. The same is true when a law imposes an implicit fee for the privilege of casting a ballot, like the $22 many would-be voters who lack the required underlying documentation will have to pay to obtain an EIC. “[W]ealth or fee paying has…no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.”

…Significantly, Texas disputes none of the facts underlying this conclusion—not the $22 cost for a birth certificate, not the distance between DPS offices, not the poverty rates for minorities in Texas, not the disproportionate vehicle access rates.

The court ruling clearly shows how voter ID laws disproportionately harm Hispanic, African-American and low-income voters, who, perhaps not surprisingly, are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. Republicans drafted the voter ID law, just like the redistricting plans, to benefit their party, from passing it as “emergency" legislation at the beginning of the 2011 legislative session to allowing voters to cast a ballot with a concealed weapons permit but not a student ID. (By my count, federal or state courts have blocked new voter suppression laws in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin this year.)

The court also recognized that voting is a precious right in a democracy and is an exercise that is in no way akin to buying Sudafed or boarding a plane. Wrote the judges: “As the Supreme Court has ‘often reiterated…voting is of the most fundamental significance under our constitutional structure.’ Indeed, the right to vote free from racial discrimination is expressly protected by the Constitution.”

Texas has said that it will now amend its case to challenge the constitutionality of Section 5 before the Supreme Court. The state has already signed on to an amicus brief supporting a challenge to Section 5 originating in Alabama that is headed to the Supreme Court. As I noted this week, Texas has lost more Section 5 enforcement cases than any other state. The state’s unlawful voter ID law and redistricting maps illustrate vividly why, forty-seven years after its passage, the Voting Rights Act, particularly Section 5, is as important today as it was in 1965.

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