Earlier this year, Texas passed a new voter ID law. The state said the new measure fixed the problems with its previous ID law, which was ruled to intentionally discriminate against minorities.
On Wednesday, in a major win for voting rights, a federal judge ruled that the new ID law is also intentionally discriminatory, and accused Texas of “voter intimidation.”
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos not only blocks the state from enforcing the ID law. It also could increase the chances that Texas is put back under a system of federal supervision for its voting laws.
“Time and time again, federal courts have made it clear that Texas’s strict voter photo ID law is discriminatory,” said Danielle Lang, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that challenged the law. “It doesn’t matter how many times the state tries to dress the law in sheep’s clothing – its intent is to discriminate and prevent hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton (pictured) called the ruling “outrageous,” and said the state would appeal it. The election law scholar Rick Hasen wrote online that the case is likely to ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The U.S. Department of Justice is satisfied that the amended voter ID law has no discriminatory purpose or effect,” said Paxton in a statement. “Safeguarding the integrity of elections in Texas is essential to preserving our democracy. The 5th Circuit should reverse the entirety of the district court’s ruling.”
The Justice Department had been among plaintiffs challenging the law. But under the Trump administration, it has switched sides, now arguing in support of Texas. (Its advocacy may not have helped Texas. In a footnote to her opinion [see p. 8], Gonzales Ramos wrote that Justice Department lawyers were “mistaken” in arguing that a 1991 voting rights ruling showed that the burden of proof was on the ID law’s challengers — an unusually bald dismissal of one side’s argument.)
Texas’s new ID law, known as SB 5, allows Texans without acceptable photo ID to cast a ballot as long as they sign an affidavit explaining the reason why they don’t have an ID. Anyone who lies on the affidavit could be charged with a felony, risking jail time.
In a careful, well-reasoned opinion, Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, wrote that in numerous ways, SB 5 retains the discriminatory intent of the original law, known as SB 14.
First, she found, SB 5 doesn’t significantly expand the list of acceptable photo IDs, even though it was established during the challenge to SB 14 that blacks and Latinos in Texas are more likely than whites to lack ID.
Nor does the new law make IDs easier to obtain. It doesn’t require that Texas provide mobile ID-issuing offices, or allocate money for them. And it doesn’t require the legislature to spend money on a public education campaign to inform voters about the new rules. The lack of ID-issuing offices, forcing some Texans to travel hundreds of miles to get ID, and the inadequacy of public education efforts, were found to be flaws in the original law.
Perhaps most important, Gonzales Ramos found that there’s no good reason Texas needs to know why a voter lacks ID. The only likely result of making it a felony to lie about the reason for lacking ID, she added, will be to intimidate legitimate voters who don’t feel confident they understand the rules.
“Requiring a voter to address more issues than necessary under penalty of perjury and enhancing that threat by making the crime a state jail felony appear to be efforts at voter intimidation,” Gonzales Ramos wrote. “The record reflects historical evidence of the use of many kinds of threats and intimidation against minorities at the polls—particularly having to do with threats of law enforcement and criminal penalties.”
Gonzales Ramos hasn’t yet ruled on a key question: whether to put Texas back under the system of federal “pre-clearance” that the Supreme Court neutered in the 2013 Shelby County case. Jurisdictions found to have intentionally discriminated can still be put back under the pre-clearance system.
Wednesday’s finding that SB 5, like SB 14, was intentionally discriminatory could make such a move more likely. It comes after Texas has also been found this month to have intentionally discriminated in its redistricting plan, and in a law that limits the use of interpreters at polling places.