Texas' Strict Voter ID Law Will Get One Last Showdown Before The Election

An appeals court will decide whether the law gets to stay on the books for the presidential election.
If Texas gets its way, it may get to enforce its restrictive voter ID law at the presidential election in November.
If Texas gets its way, it may get to enforce its restrictive voter ID law at the presidential election in November.

Texas managed to convince the most conservative appeals court in the country to wipe out an August ruling that held that the state's restrictive voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In an order issued Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit announced that all the judges in active service on the court -- 15 in all -- agreed to reconsider the case all over again.

The earlier ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court had found that Texas' controversial S.B.14 law had a racially "discriminatory effect" on minority voters -- a victory for voting rights advocates who were hoping to infuse new life into the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court effectively crippled it in 2013.  

With Wednesday's action, that ruling is no more. The 5th Circuit has notified Texas and the parties challenging the law that oral arguments in the case are expected in May.

Following that hearing, a ruling could come before the presidential election, though both parties would likely seek Supreme Court intervention if a decision comes down too close to when people actually start casting ballots. 

Ken Paxton, Texas' attorney general, said in a statement that the 5th Circuit's move on Wednesday represents "a strong step forward in our efforts to defend the state's Voter ID laws."

"Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is a primary function of state government and is essential to preserving our democratic process," he added.

Legal efforts to stop S.B.14 have had a long and tortuous history. But this latest sprint is the most ambitious, since it seeks to show that states that were previously subject to federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act -- a requirement the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional -- are still enacting measures to disenfranchise voters.

In October 2014, a federal judge conducted a nine-day trial and ultimately threw the book at Texas -- finding that its voter ID law imposed an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, that it amounted to a poll tax, and that it was passed with a discriminatory purpose and effect.

But Texas has fought hard to appeal that ruling, winning a number of emergency reprieves to prevent it from stopping the law dead in its tracks. A few days after the October ruling, even the Supreme Court had to step in -- effectively allowing the law to take effect for the 2014 election.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn't too pleased at the time.

"The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters," she wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Stories of disenfranchisement in Texas aligned with Ginsburg's warning. With one more round to go before the 5th Circuit, this new showdown for the voter ID law may very well be its last.