The tortuous legal fight over the future of Texas’ voter ID law is over ― at least until the November election.
A federal judge on Wednesday issued a detailed order on how Texas must now move forward ahead of Election Day, listing a range of measures to essentially ensure no voter is disenfranchised for lacking the proper form of identification or the means to obtain it.
“These terms contemplate the formulation of a plan for educating voters and training election workers,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos wrote near the end of her order, which also instructs the state to spend no less than $2.5 million in these efforts.
Among them, Texas voters may present not only the forms of ID the law prescribes, but also “a voter registration certificate, a certified birth certificate, a current utility bill, a bank statement, a government check, a paycheck, or any other government document” with the voter’s name and address, accompanied by a signed declaration attesting to the voter’s identity and reasons for not being able to obtain a state-required form of ID.
The form ― which Texas also has to make available in Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese ― looks something like this:
But there’s more. Under the terms of the order, the address on the alternative document doesn’t have to match what’s on the voter rolls, and poll workers aren’t allowed to question the voter’s identity, what’s on his or her declaration, or the reason the voter lists for being unable to obtain the more onerous form of ID.
These directives represent a big victory for the civil rights groups that, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice, teamed up against the law. Texas was allowed to implement the ID law for the 2014 election, but Wednesday’s action has left it with barely any teeth for the upcoming contest. That’s thanks in no small part to a watershed July ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which found that the state discriminated against minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“This hard-fought victory is good news, and a big step in our continuing fight to push back against discriminatory laws that have no place in the Lone Star State,” Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP, one of the groups that joined the lawsuit, said in a statement.
Vanita Gupta, the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, called Ramos’ order “a very important step toward a process designed to provide that opportunity for hundreds of thousands of eligible Texans.”
Despite the order’s breadth, Ramos made clear that this is only an “interim” form of relief ― the case will remain active in the courts after the election and Texas vowed on Wednesday to keep fighting and if necessary go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state tried to downplay the effect of Wednesday’s order.
“Given the time constraints of the November elections and the direction of the Fifth Circuit, today’s order by the district court is an interim remedy that preserves the crucial aspects of the voter ID law for this November election,” Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office, said in a statement.
It isn’t clear how the current Supreme Court would react to this and a flurry of court rulings striking down or softening similar voter ID laws. Laws requiring voter identification began to spring up in Republican-controlled states in the wake of the high court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which allowed states that were previously under federal supervision to experiment with voter ID and other restrictions.
Last week, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said he would ask the high court to intervene to keep his state’s own voting law in place before the election. In July, an appeals court blocked it in its entirety, noting that North Carolina lawmakers enacted a regime that targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
But things aren’t so certain in Wisconsin, whose own voter ID law, signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2011, could play an important role in the presidential election. A federal judge said that voters there could use an affidavit ― similar to Texas’ ― in place of ID, but on Wednesday, an appeals court put that decision on hold. The judges there reasoned that, under the Supreme Court’s own precedents, the hurdles that voters must clear to obtain an ID “surely does not qualify as a substantial burden on the right to vote.”
Summing up these and other developments, Richard Hasen, curator of the popular Election Law Blog, wrote that, with the clock ticking and the Supreme Court evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, the spate of rulings and appeals had the potential of sowing more confusion.
“The bottom line is that there’s still great uncertainty about the rules for voting in these key states,” Hasen wrote in The Washington Post. “The longer this goes on, the harder it will be not just for those who run the election but for voters looking forward to participating in November’s key election.”