A federal court recently rejected Texas’ new voter ID law, saying the measure would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minority voters.
The three-judge panel made its decision against the law, SB-14, after a week-long trial, during which it heard live testimony from 20 witnesses, including election lawyers, Texas state legislators, civil rights leaders, and experts in history, political science, and statistics.
“Uncontested record evidence conclusively shows that the implicit costs of obtaining SB 14-qualifying ID will fall most heavily on the poor and that a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Texas live in poverty,” the court wrote in its opinion. “We therefore conclude that SB 14 is likely to lead to ‘retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.’”
The state filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the Justice Department declared the voter ID law unconstitutional based on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That section requires that changes to election laws should not diminish the ability of non-White Americans to exercise their right to vote.
In its argument, Texas contended that obtaining a valid ID under the new law was a “minor inconvenience,” and those would-be voters who refused to get one were simply choosing not to vote.
The state also claimed the measure was not discriminatory as it “neither has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race[,] color,” or “member[ship] [in] a language minority group.”
But the three-judge panel concluded that Texas’s evidence on the law’s supposed non-discriminatory and harmful effects on non-White voters was spotty, and “some combination of invalid, irrelevant, and unreliable.”
Under the new law, voters would have been required to present photo IDs only to use the ballot box. Suitable IDs would have included a driver’s license or personal ID card issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety, a license to carry a concealed handgun, also issued by that state department, a U.S. military ID card, a U.S. citizenship certificate with photograph or a U.S. passport.
For those without these forms of ID, the state proposed to issue “election identification certificates.” But, applicants for the certificates had to present state officials with other forms of identification such as an expired Texas driver’s license or personal ID card, an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, U.S. citizenship or naturalization papers or a court order indicating a change of name and/or gender.
According to the Justice Department and civil rights groups that filed briefs in the case, obtaining those documents could impose unbearable costs on poor, mostly minority, voters. Not only would the application process require money, but traveling to the Department of Public Safety offices would also be troublesome. The Justice Department argued that “in 81 of the state’s 254 counties, there are no operational driver’s license offices.” And, in an additional 34 counties, Department of Public Safety offices were opened for only two days for limited hours.
Texas was one of more than 30 states that passed voter ID laws in advance of the November elections, claiming that the requirement would protect against voter fraud.
But critics of the laws claim that voter fraud rarely occurs, and the laws disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic, elderly and poor voters. Those critics praised the court’s rejection of Texas’ legislation.
“This clear victory affirms how vital Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is in protecting minority voting rights,” Bob Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project, part of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. “It’s important to protect the integrity of our elections and stop voter fraud, but we should not be making it harder for millions of eligible Americans, including seniors and minorities, to participate in our democracy. Clearly the court agrees.”
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