A federal judge has rejected the Trump administration’s latest effort to significantly weaken a challenge to Texas’s voter ID law.
It’s an important procedural win for voting rights, but the legal battle over the draconian six-year-old law drags on. An estimated 600,000 registered Texas voters lack the ID required under the law.
The strict ID measure already has been found to discriminate against racial minorities, who are far more likely than whites to lack acceptable photo ID. But under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Justice Department has argued that because the state is working on a new version of the law, a district court shouldn’t rule on the question of whether Texas intended to discriminate against minorities when it passed the law in 2011. (As we reported last month, that “modified” version of the law would threaten some voters with prison.)
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos dismissed the Justice Department’s argument, saying she’ll rule on the intent question this spring, regardless of when or if Texas passes a new version of the law. Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, ruled in 2014 that Texas did intend to discriminate, but an appeals court later asked her to re-examine the issue.
“This is an important victory for TX voters who have suffered under a photo ID law specifically crafted with racially discriminatory intent,” tweeted Gerry Hebert, a lawyer for the private plaintiffs challenging the law, in response to the judge’s order.
The intent issue matters, largely because if Texas is found to have intentionally discriminated, the state could be forced to re-enter the federal pre-clearance system, in which it must get all changes to election rules and laws pre-approved the federal government. That system was neutered by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
Gonzales Ramos did allow the Justice Department to withdraw its claim that Texas intended to discriminate. The intent claim remains part of the case because the private plaintiffs challenging the law have not dropped it.
DoJ’s request last month to be allowed to drop the intent claim, which had been made under the Obama administration, was an early, ominous sign that under Sessions, the Justice Department was backing away from strong enforcement of voting rights.