AUSTIN, Texas—For the second time in three days, a federal court ruled that Texas violated the Voting Rights Act, this time by enacting a voter identification law that improperly limits the ability of minority citizens to cast a ballot.
The expense and difficulty in meeting the state’s voter ID law would weigh most heavily on the poor — and racial minorities are much more likely to live in poverty, the court ruled Thursday.
“Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by (the voter ID law), likely be unable to vote in the next election,” said the opinion by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Texas will appeal the decision, which prevents the state from enforcing its voter ID law in the November election.
Thursday’s ruling also sets up a high-stakes battle as the court next considers part two of Texas’ lawsuit: the claim that a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.
Texas will seek to invalidate Section 5 of the act — which requires states with a history of race-based voting discrimination to get federal “pre-clearance” before enforcing laws that affect voters — as an unfair burden that other states do not have to meet.
Supporters say Section 5, as the teeth behind the Voting Rights Act, is essential to protecting civil rights advances.
The federal court panel gave all parties in the case 14 days to submit a proposed schedule for proceeding with that challenge.
In the meantime, a separate challenge to Section 5 is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and could decide the matter first. Texas has joined several other states in urging the court to accept the case out of Shelby County, Ala., and declare Section 5 unconstitutional.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Thursday that Texas also will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the voter ID ruling.
“Today’s decision is wrong on the law and improperly prevents Texas from implementing the same type of ballot-integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana — and were upheld by the Supreme Court,” Abbott said.
The three-judge panel, however, noted that the Georgia and Indiana laws were substantially different, and much easier to meet, than the Texas regulation, enacted in the 2011 legislative session as one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID laws.
The Texas law would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polling place — either a driver’s license or Department of Public Safety ID card, military ID, U.S. passport, U.S. citizenship certificate or concealed handgun permit.
Current law allows much greater latitude, including a printed voter registration certificate, birth certificate, college or other photo ID and utility bills.
Republican leaders argued that the restrictions were needed to prevent voter fraud.
Democrats, claiming such fraud is extremely rare, said the effort was intended to weed out poor, minority and student voters who are more likely to support Democratic candidates but less likely to have a photo ID.
Voter ID “would have muffled the voice of those that need government’s ear the most,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat. “Citizens have the responsibility to vote and participate in our democracy, but restrictive voting laws like Texas’ deny them that opportunity.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized the ruling, saying it “subverted the will of the people of Texas and undermined our effort to ensure fair and accurate elections. The Obama administration’s claim that it’s a burden to present a photo ID to vote simply defies common sense.” The ruling was the state’s second such setback this week.
On Tuesday, a separate federal-court panel ruled that three Texas redistricting maps, drawn in the 2011 legislative session by Republican leaders, also violated the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against minorities or by reducing their voting strength.
Thursday’s opinion, written by Circuit Judge David Tatel, said Section 5 required Texas to prove that its voter ID law would not “worsen the position of minority voters.” The best way to meet that burden, Tatel wrote, was to show that people could get identification without cost or major inconvenience.
But the court found that the state’s offer of a free ID card from the Department of Public Safety carried a substantial financial penalty that burdens low-income citizens — a disproportionate number of whom are minorities — in two ways:
An applicant must present DPS with specific forms of government-issued identification, the cheapest of which is a $22 certified copy of a birth certificate. In contrast, Georgia accepts many forms of identification at no charge, while Indiana charges far less for copies of birth certificates.
Eighty-one of Texas’ 254 counties do not have a DPS office, and many others are open only a few days a week. “Even the most committed citizen, we think, would agree that a 200 to 250 mile round trip — especially for would-be voters having no driver’s license — constitutes a ‘substantial burden’ on the right to vote,” the court ruled.
Ignoring warnings that the law would unfairly target the poor, legislators defeated several amendments “that could have made this a far closer case,” including fee waivers and reimbursed travel costs for low-income citizens and a wider range of acceptable, low-cost identification, the court said.