Appeals Court Strikes Down Texas Voter ID Law As Violation Of Voting Rights Act

The nation's strictest voter ID law was ruled to be racially discriminatory.

A controversial voter ID law in Texas violates a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The Fifth Circuit Court struck down the law that civil rights activists said aimed to racially discriminate and had the effect of disenfranchising minority, elderly, poor and student voters.

Proponents of the law had argued the change was geared at cracking down on voter fraud and maintaining the integrity of the elections process.

An election official checks a Texas voter's photo ID at a polling site in Austin in 2014.
An election official checks a Texas voter's photo ID at a polling site in Austin in 2014.
Eric Gay/AP

The federal appeals court issued its 203-page ruling on the final day of the deadline set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas lawmakers in 2011 passed the controversial S.B. 14 ― which significantly tightened the types of identification voters could use at the polls to be permitted to cast a ballot ― but were barred from enacting it due to a key section of the VRA that required states to submit any changes to their election laws to the federal government or in federal court for scrutiny.

But when the U.S. Supreme Court controversially ruled in 2013 to gut that section of the act, Texas was able to move forward with the law.

The following year in October, a district court in Texas held that the law was in fact “enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose, has a racially discriminatory effect, is a poll tax, and unconstitutionally burdens the right to vote.”

The federal appeals court ― the same one that issued Wednesday’s ruling ― blocked the district court judge’s attempt to stymie the law, arguing the action came too close to the election.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in time for the November midterms ― despite the fact that more than 600,000 Texas voters lacked a valid form of ID under the new law ― and the law was in effect for the 2014 election cycle.

The Brennan Center for Justice documented how voters with expired driver’s licenses (or those who simply forgot to bring their ID to the polls) were denied the right to vote and forced to cast a provisional ballot instead.

Students were barred from using state university IDs as proof of identification, while concealed carry licenses, passports and military IDs were allowed.

By 2015, the federal appeals court issued a ruling in response to the 2014 district court order that was a half-win, half-defeat for both parties fighting over the voter ID law.

The court found the Texas voter ID law would have a discriminatory impact ― and thus violate the VRA ― but did not determine whether Texas lawmakers had a discriminatory intent in passing the legislation. The Fifth Circuit kicked the law back down to the lower district court to re-evaluate whether the Texas legislators acted in a way that was purposefully discriminatory.

In March of 2016, the state convinced the Fifth Circuit Court ― considered the most conservative of all 11 U.S. appeals courts ― to reconsider the case all over again.

Civil rights groups praised the court’s ruling after it was handed down on Wednesday.

“This is great for democracy, and shows how people can operate in a bi-partisan fashion for the good of Texas and re-enfranchise thousands of Texans,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. “This is consistent with what federal judges in Washington, D.C., Corpus Christi and earlier in New Orleans had already seen. Judges of both parties have now spoken in four different forums so we hope that the Attorney General recognizes the obvious: that this is a discriminatory law, and stops trying to enforce this law.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), who fought to keep the law in effect, called Wednesday’s ruling “unfortunate.”

“It is imperative that the State government safeguards our elections and ensures the integrity of our democratic process,” Paxton said in a statement. “Preventing voter fraud is essential to accurately reflecting the will of Texas voters during elections, and it is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety.”

Paxton did not immediately indicate if the state would appeal to the Supreme Court.

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