It’s been a bad week for voter ID laws.
On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office released a comprehensive study showing that strict voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee decreased voter turnout by two to three points from 2008 to 2012 compared to similar states without voter ID laws, leading to 122,000 fewer votes.
Last night, a federal district court struck down Texas’s voter ID law, the strictest in the country, calling it “an unconstitutional poll tax.”
An hour later, the Supreme Court released a brief order blocking Wisconsin’s voter ID law for November. The 6-3 ruling didn’t explain why, but hinted it was because the massive new voting restriction was reinstated by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit weeks before the election. Nearly 10 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin don’t have a government-issued ID, and the new requirement was causing chaos on the ground. (Wisconsin’s elimination of early voting on nights and weekends remains in effect.)
My colleague John Nichols wrote about the Wisconsin decision, so I’ll focus on the Texas case.
The 147-page opinion by Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the Southern District of Texas, an Obama appointee, is the most extensive rebuke of strict voter ID laws that I’ve read to date. It debunks the myths that everyone has the limited forms of government-issued photo ID required to vote, that it’s easy to get one, that there is an epidemic of voter fraud necessitating such laws, and that voter ID laws are always constitutional.
Judge Ramos found that 608,470 registered voters in Texas, representing 4.5 percent of all registered voters, lack the necessary voter ID, with African-Americans three times as likely as whites to not have a voter ID and Hispanics twice as likely. The state had issued only 279 voter IDs by the start of the trial in September.
She ruled that law, known as SB 14, violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
“It is clear from the evidence,” Ramos wrote, “that SB 14 disproportionately impacts African-American and Hispanic registered voters relative to Anglos in Texas…To call SB 14’s disproportionate impact on minorities statistically significant would be an understatement.”
There’s no such thing as a “free” voter ID in Texas. To get a qualified voter ID, you need underlying documents that cost money—the most common option being a birth certificate, which ranges from $22 to $47. That’s why Ramos called it a poll tax. Multiple witnesses in the case tried long and hard to get this documentation, and still could not. She pointed to the story of Margarito Lara, who testified at the trial.
Mr. Lara, a 77-year-old Hispanic retiree from Sebastian, Texas, has attempted to locate his birth certificate for more than twenty years. He was born in what he described as a “farm ranch” in Cameron County, Texas. With the help of his daughter, he visited three offices in two counties but was unsuccessful in locating his birth certificate. Mr. Lara later paid a $22.00 search fee to DSHS [Texas Department of State Health Services] to confirm what he already suspected—his birth was never registered. Thus, Mr. Lara must now apply for a delayed birth certificate (using a 14-page packet of instructions and forms) at a cost of $25.00. Additionally, he will have to pay $22.00 for a certified copy of the birth certificate. He testified that he has twice attempted to apply for the delayed birth certificate to no avail.
Two years ago, Eric Holder was widely ridiculed for calling Texas’s voter ID law a poll tax. Now a federal court has agreed.
“We are extremely heartened by the court’s decision, which affirms our position that the Texas voter identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise,” the outgoing attorney general said in a statement. “Even after the Voting Rights Act was seriously eroded last year, we vowed to continue enforcing the remaining portions of that statute as aggressively as possible. This ruling is an important vindication of those efforts.”
Even if getting this documentation wasn’t a bureaucratic nightmare, seventy-eight of 254 counties in Texas don’t have a DMV office. “For some communities along the Mexican border, the nearest permanent DPS office is between 100 and 125 miles away,” Ramos wrote. Texas has done virtually nothing to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of voters without ID can easily get one.
Nine plaintiffs in the case lacked a qualified voter ID—twice as many disenfranchised voters as there were cases of voter fraud presented by the state. Texas has successfully prosecuted only four cases of voter impersonation in the past twelve years.
Ramos found that the law was passed not to combat voter impersonation in Texas—which is basically non-existent—but to make it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote.
The record as a whole (including the relative scarcity of incidences of in-person voter impersonation fraud, the fact that SB 14 addresses no other type of voter fraud, the anti-immigration and anti-Hispanic sentiment permeating the 2011 legislative session, and the legislators’ knowledge that SB 14 would clearly impact minorities disproportionately and likely disenfranchise them) shows that SB 14 was racially motivated.
The law violates Section 2 of the VRA, Ramos said, because it has a discriminatory effect and, most notably, a discriminatory purpose.
This Court concludes that the evidence in the record demonstrates that proponents of SB 14 within the 82nd Texas Legislature were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate.
That finding is incredibly significant, meaning that Texas can be “bailed-in” under Section 3 of the VRA and could once again have to approve its voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court gutted in June 2013. Texas would be the first state subject to the potent yet little-used bail-in since the Shelby County v. Holder decision. The Court will rule on this request from the Justice Department and civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the coming weeks.
The law was previously blocked under Section 5 by a federal court in Washington in 2012—gaining the unique distinction of being struck down twice, under different sections of the VRA. Maybe that’s a sign that Texas should give this whole voter suppression thing a rest. (Texas vowed to appeal immediately. One Republican lawmaker, the former chair of the House elections committee, testified at the trial that Republicans in the legislature would have been “lynched” by the voters if they didn’t pass voter ID in 2011.)
Still, these are only tentative victories. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—the most conservative court in the country—could easily overturn Ramos’s decision. And the Supreme Court could uphold Wisconsin’s voter law if/when it rules on the merits—even though the voter ID laws in Texas and Wisconsin are much more burdensome, in design and practicality, than the Indiana voter ID law upheld by the Court in 2008.