Federal Appeals Court Rules Texas Voter ID Law Violates Voting Rights Act

The law is one of the nation's strictest.

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court on Wednesday found that Texas’ strict voter identification law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, in a victory for civil rights groups who had challenged the law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit did not make a determination as to whether Texas legislators had a discriminatory purpose in passing the legislation, and sent that issue back to a lower federal court to re-evaluate the determination that it was purposefully discriminatory. But the appeals court did find that the Texas voter ID law would have a discriminatory impact, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

In declining to find Texas legislators had a discriminatory purpose in passing the legislation, members of the appeals court said they recognized “the charged nature of accusations of racism, particularly against a legislative body,” but they also acknowledged “the sad truth that racism continues to exist in our modern American society despite years of laws designed to eradicate it.”

Because it found a violation of the Voting Rights Act, the federal appeals court declined to decide the question of whether the strict voter ID law violated constitutional rights under the First and 14th Amendments, and dismissed the claims. The court also suggested that a lower federal court could either reinstate voter registration cards as documents that allow someone to cast a ballot, or allow someone to sign an affidavit saying they do not have an acceptable form of identification before they were allowed to vote.

“We urge the parties to work cooperatively with the district court to provide a prompt resolution of this matter to avoid election eve uncertainties and emergencies,” the appeals court wrote.

Texas, which had originally been prevented from passing the law in 2011 under Republican Gov. Rick Perry, was able to quickly enact it in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the VRA, which required the state to submit any changes to its election laws to the federal government or in federal court.

In October, a federal judge called the law an unconstitutional "poll tax” that was intentionally discriminatory and an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote. But the Supreme Court allowed the law to be in effect for November’s midterm election, even though more than 600,000 Texans lacked a valid form of government-issued photo identification.

On Wednesday, the federal appeals court said that while the purpose of passing the legislation was to protect the sanctity of voting and avoid voter fraud, it questions whether there were “impermissible motives” as well. It said it was “difficult” to evaluate the motives of dozens of people, but the opinion indicated that the court was surprised not to find any evidence of racial motives in private correspondence.

“While it is true that it is unlikely for a legislator to stand in the well of the state house or senate and articulate a racial motive, it is also unlikely that such a motive would permeate a legislative body and not yield any private memos or emails,” the court said.

Section 2 of the VRA prohibits election procedures that discriminate on the basis of race or color. In its ruling, a three-judge panel for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals directed a lower court to further determine whether the GOP-controlled Texas legislature intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, and if so, what an appropriate remedy would be. Texas may now ask for its case to be heard before the entire 5th Circuit, or direct its appeal to the Supreme Court.

As the Brennan Center for Justice has documented, voters whose driver's licenses had expired, or those who did not bring their licenses with them to the polls, were unable to vote in the midterm election and were forced to cast provisional ballots. Gun licenses counted as a valid form of photo identification, while student IDs from state universities did not.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton characterized the ruling as a victory for the state, rather than as a partial defeat.

“Today’s ruling was a victory on the fundamental question of Texas’ right to protect the integrity of our elections and the state’s common sense Voter ID law remains in effect," Paxton said in a statement. "I’m particularly pleased the panel saw through and rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that our law constituted a ‘poll tax.’ The intent of this law is to protect the voting process in Texas, and we will continue to defend this important safeguard for all Texas voters.”

Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, called Wednesday's decision "a tremendous victory for Texas voters" in a statement.

“More than half a million registered voters do not have the kind of ID required by Texas’s harsh new law," she continued. "Texas should heed the admonishment of three courts, abandon their discriminatory law, and start working to make sure Texas voters can make their voices heard.”

This story has been updated to include comments from Paxton and Pérez.

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