DOJ's Withdraw from Texas Voter ID Lawsuit Signifies Change in Federal Policy

Voter IDThe Department of Justice has announced that it will no longer pursue a civil rights claim against a Texas voter ID law which the Obama administration claimed was discriminatory and illegal.  The announcement represents the type of about-face in DOJ policy which many experts anticipated when President Trump took office, and it has resulted in outrage from opponents of strict voter identification requirements.

Texas Voter ID Law Faces Federal Challenge

In 2011 Texas passed a stringent voter identification law which faced immediate backlash from opponents who argued the state legislature designed the requirements with the intention of preventing minority voters from having access to the polls.  The law, which stands out as strict among voter identification laws, requires Texas voters to produce specific forms of identification in order to vote: driver’s license, military ID, passport, or weapons permit.  Unlike other states, the Texas law does not allow more informal sources of identification — such as university ID’s or employee ID’s — to be presented in lieu of the above list of official government-issued documents.

The Obama-era Department of Justice joined with private plaintiffs and voting rights organizations to challenge the law in federal court in 2013 alleging that the law discriminated against Black and Hispanic voters who were more likely to lack the means of obtaining an approved ID than Whites.  Challengers to the Texas voter ID law earned an important legal victory last year when a federal judge blocked enforcement of the regulation after agreeing with the DOJ that the law had a discriminatory effect against minority voters.  Although last year’s ruling was significant, its effect was limited because the judge did not rule on the intent of the Texas legislature when it passed the voter ID law.

The post-election challenge to the intent of the Texas voter ID law is critical because the outcome of the case will dictate how much control the federal government has over states which pass similar legislation.  If opponents to the law are able to demonstrate that Texas legislators, who are predominately Republican, acted with discriminatory intent — that is they passed the law with the intention of restricting or encumbering minority voting — then the courts could force Texas, and other states, to seek federal approval before making any further changes to its laws or procedures.  Under President Obama, the DOJ strongly advocated for a ruling on discriminatory intent, however, the Trump administration has formally withdrawn from that aspect of the case.

DOJ Drops Challenge to Texas Voter ID Law

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the DOJ will not continue its claim that the Texas legislature acted with the intent to discriminate, pointing to recent efforts by the state to amend its voter identification requirements.  In a document filed to the federal court hearing the case, the DOJ withdrew its discriminatory intent claim in order give “the Texas Legislature the opportunity to rectify any alleged infirmities with its voter identification law.”   The motion to withdraw also emphasized the DOJ’s new position on the issue: allowing states the opportunity to correct civil rights violations without requiring approval or guidance from the federal government.

The decision, which comes on the heels of a similar reversal on an Obama-era policy which prohibited discrimination against transgender students in schools, is consistent with the shift in approach by the DOJ which was anticipated when AG Jeff Sessions was confirmed.  Civil rights advocates, who enjoyed a sympathetic and supportive white house under Obama, have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s shift in policy will harm minority communities who will no longer have the backing of the federal government in legal cases involving civil rights violations. 

President Trump, AG Sessions, and other critics of the challenges to Texas’s voter ID law have argued that the state has a right to work to prevent voter fraud — an issue which the President has been openly concerned about — without triggering civil rights legal challenges.  Despite the DOJ’s decision to withdraw from the case, the federal lawsuit will proceed.

Challenge to Texas Voter ID Law Will Proceed Without DOJ

The remaining plaintiffs, who include civil rights organizations and private minority citizens affected by the law, will proceed with their case against Texas’s voter ID requirements and press for a ruling that the state acted with discriminatory intent when it passed the bill in 2011.  Without the DOJ supporting the challenge, it is unclear if the momentum gained in last year’s federal court victory will carry over to the discriminatory intent allegations, which leaves the remaining plaintiffs on shakier ground  than they were under Obama’s administration. 

AG Sessions’ decision to withdraw sets the tone for future voting rights challenges as well because it is clear that the new direction of the DOJ values state autonomy and fraud-prevention more than it does alleged civil rights abuses.  With more states facing legal challenges over voter identification laws, the DOJ’s reversal of policy in the Texas lawsuit could have a major impact on the future of voting regulations in America.

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