A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Texas’s strict voter-ID law discriminates against minority voters, and it ordered a lower court to come up with a fix for the law in time for the November elections.
The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, one of the most conservative in the country, declined to strike down the law completely but said provisions must be made to allow those who lack the specific ID the law requires to be able to cast a vote.
Nine of the 15 appellate judges who heard the case generally upheld a district court’s finding that 600,000 people, disproportionately minorities, lack the specific kind of identification required – a driver’s license, military ID, passport or weapons permit, among them – and that it would be difficult for many to secure it.
African American, Hispanic and poor voters were most likely to be affected, the court found.
“It would be untenable to permit a law with a discriminatory effect to remain in operation” for the coming election, wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes for the majority, made of up five judges nominated by Democratic presidents and four nominated by Republicans.
Those who possess the necessary ID must show it to vote in November, Haynes wrote. But she said the district court judge who first heard the case should fashion a remedy to rectify “the discriminatory effect on those voters who do not have . . . ID or are unable to reasonably obtain such identification.”
That was similar to a federal judge’s decision Tuesday that voters in Wisconsin who have trouble meeting that state’s voter-ID requirements should still be allowed to vote by signing an affidavit attesting to the voter’s identity.
Every judge who has considered the Texas law has found it discriminatory, but it still has been used in elections there. Challengers to the law had asked the Supreme Court to stop the law from being used in November, and the high court had given the 5th Circuit a Wednesday deadline to make its own decision about the law.
Texas could appeal the 5th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court. But the court currently is split 4 to 4 on ideological grounds, and it would require the vote of five to overturn the circuit court decision.
The law has been challenged since its enactment by a broad coalition of civil rights groups and others,, including the Obama administration.
“Today is a great day for the secure voting rights of all Americans but it is a watershed day in the protection of voters in Texas who have recently been under attack by state leaders,” said Chad Dunn, a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs. “Help is on the way to our clients and hundreds of thousands of Texans like them.”
Texas contended that the earlier decisions were incorrect and that challengers have not been able to prove the law has reduced turnout or participation in any of the three statewide or five local elections in which the law has been used.
“Preventing voter fraud is essential to accurately reflecting the will of Texas voters during elections, and it is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The full appeals court said U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had gone too far in finding that the Texas Legislature had a discriminatory intent in passing the law. But it did find there was reason for her to reexamine the question under more demanding standards.
That drew a scathing dissent from six of the court’s judges.
“By keeping this latter claim alive, the majority fans the flames of perniciously irresponsible racial name-calling,” wrote Judge Edith J. Jones. She compared the majority to “Area 51 alien enthusiasts who, lacking any real evidence, espied a vast but clandestine government conspiracy to conceal the ‘truth.'”
The state relied on a 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding an Indiana law that recognized a state’s interest in requiring voter IDs to maintain a fair and honest voting system.
Attorneys for the law’s challengers said the Voting Rights Act requires courts to look closely at the context and consequences of the changes and whether they are needlessly burdensome.
Challengers, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the legislature’s purpose, in part, was to curb the increasing power of minority voters in the state. It said the legislature worked “with surgical precision” to rule out the kinds of identification – government employment cards, for instance, or college IDs – that minorities were most likely to hold.
The Texas law, known as SB 14, is one of several that will face court tests between now and the general election. Seventeen states have more-restrictive voting laws than they did during the presidential election four years ago, and several are under court scrutiny.
A voter-ID law in North Carolina was recently upheld, and that case now heads to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. Virginia’s less-restrictive law was upheld as well.
But the Texas law has a long legal past. It was passed in 2011, but challenged under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids changes that discriminate against minorities.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Robert Barnes