Federal Appeals Court Strikes a Blow to Texas Voter ID Law

A controversial Texas voter identification law was struck a blow by a federal court of appeals last week, forcing the state to provide accommodation for voters who struggle to obtain state identification documents.  The case has earned national attention for highlighting a bitter dispute between Democrats and Republicans over voting rights, and this week’s ruling serves as important victory for opponents of strict voter identification laws.

Texas Voter ID Law Challenged in Federal Court

Texas’s voter ID law, called SB 14, mandates that voters in the state must be able to provide at least one of seven different forms of acceptable identification in order to cast a vote.  Passed in 2011, SB 14 was advanced by Republicans as a measure to protect the state from voter fraud and promote confidence in the election process.  The bill received unanimous support from Republican lawmakers, and went into effect early in January of 2012.  Acceptable forms of identification under SB 14 include state issued ID’s (such as driver’s licenses or passports) and permits to carry concealed handguns, but do not include college ID’s or copies of voter registration cards. 

Since its passage in 2011, the Texas voter ID law has faced stiff opposition from opponents who argue that the effect of the bill is discriminatory against minority populations, particularly Latinos, who have a hard time obtaining the types of ID’s SB 14 requires.  In 2014, the Supreme Court allowed Texas to enforce SB 14 while the bill was still working its way through a series of federal legal challenges, but did not make a ruling on the constitutionality of the measure.  After several years of appeals, the challenge to SB 14 finally received a ruling last week which provided a victory for opponents of the measure, but left the door open for its supporters to continue the pursuit of strict voter identification requirements.

Federal Appeals Court Finds Discrimination in Texas Voter ID Law

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, reviewed the Texas voter ID law and found that it violated the Voting Rights Act by having a discriminatory effect on the state’s minority populations.  According to the 5th Circuit, a disproportionate number of black and Latino voters lack the means to obtain the forms of voter identification which the SB 14 requires, creating an unjustified burden to voting on minority populations compared to white citizens.  The Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held in a 9-6 decision that the undue burden on voting suffered by minorities is unlawful, and the law could not be enforced as it is currently written.

Despite the positive outcome for opponents of SB 14, the Court’s determination that the law has an unlawful discriminatory effect was only enough to order a remedy to its impact, and not strike it down entirely.  Instead, the Court sent the legal challenge back to a lower federal judge with instructions to rule on the intent of the legislature at the time SB 14 was passed.  Although the Court did not entirely strike down the law outright, it required a lower court propose a series of interim measures which soften the effect of SB 14 by expanding the types of acceptable ID’s voters may present in order to cast a ballot in this year’s election. 

Federal Court Proposes Compromise to Texas Voter ID Law

In response to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal judge in Texas proposed a series of measures designed to remedy the discriminatory impact of SB 14 in time for this year’s critical election.  Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of a federal district court in Corpus Christi provided a six point guide which requires all citizens with the means of getting a photo ID to present it, but allows voters who can show a legitimate impediment to obtaining a photo ID to use their voter registration card instead.  Under Ramos’s plan, Texas officials must actively educate the public on the new voter ID requirements and train all election workers to ensure there are no difficulties at the polls.

The parties must agree on a remedy by August 17th, at which point a court hearing will settle any remaining differences between the sides.  The fight over SB 14 may have been put on hold for the 2016 election cycle, however, proponents of the law expressed dissatisfaction in the 5th Circuit Court’s ruling and have promised to continue to fight voter fraud using laws that set strict identification requirements.  An appeal to the Supreme Court is possible, but the more likely course of action is that the parties will continue to litigate the intent of SB 14 in lower federal courts, and postpone an appeal to SCOTUS for a later date.  Given the tone of the recent ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the current composition of the Supreme Court, Texas, and other states, face an uphill legal battle when passing and enforcing rigid voter ID requirements going forward.

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