Voter ID Laws, In Texas And Elsewhere, Face Continued Legal Wrangling

MIAMI - OCTOBER 21:  Hispanic voters go to the polls for early voting at the Miami-Dade Government Center on October 21, 2004
MIAMI - OCTOBER 21: Hispanic voters go to the polls for early voting at the Miami-Dade Government Center on October 21, 2004 in Miami, Florida. Early voting began this week in Florida and is under heavy scrutiny after the debacle in the 2000 election. (Photo by G. De Cardenas/Getty Images)

A federal court struck down a Texas voter ID law Tuesday, in a major blow to Republican legislatures and governors around the country that are pursuing such legislation. Voting rights groups, however, were pleased, having accused the law's supporters of working to limit the influence of black and Latino voters.

The Texas voter ID law would have prevented as many as 1.5 million people from participating in the November election, said Penda Hair, co-founder of The Advancement Project.

Texas will appeal the ruling and take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state's Attorney General Greg Abbott said.

"The Supreme Court of the United States has already upheld Voter ID laws as a constitutional method of ensuring integrity at the ballot box," said Abbott in a statement. "Today's decision is wrong ... We are confident we will prevail."

For Texas, the ruling marks the second time in a week that a federal court has admonished the state legislature. On Tuesday, a federal court ruled that a congressional district plan drawn by the legislature was specifically crafted to discriminate against Hispanic voters by limiting their influence. But the Texas voter ID case and the legal questions that it raised are far from unique.

The Voting Rights Act protects the ability of minority voters to participate in elections; and one provision, Section 5, requires certain states, such as Texas and South Carolina, that have a history or recent record of voter intimidation, poll taxes or other forms of election discrimination to clear proposed changes in voting law, practice or procedure with federal authorities. A growing number of states are putting the Voting Rights Act at the center of election disputes this year by attempting to challenge Section 5 itself in court, ProPublica reported Tuesday. A series of voter ID cases are also pending.

Last week, Wisconsin asked its State Supreme Court to overturn a pair of injunctions currently blocking its voter ID law from going into effect. The state would like to apply the law in the coming November elections, according to documents filed with the court. The Wisconsin law would likely render 200,000 to 300,000 people unable to vote, Hair said.

In South Carolina, the state is asking a court to override a Justice Department decision that prevented the state from implementing its voter ID law because the department determined it would have a disproportionate impact on minority voters. The Justice Department found that as many as 500,000 registered South Carolina voters do not have the ID that would have been required to vote under the law, said Hair.

Voting rights groups are also appealing a Pennsylvania state court's decision to uphold that state's voter ID law this month. The groups have offered evidence that perhaps as many as 1.4 million registered voters do not have the IDs required to vote; the state has put that figure closer to 700,000 voters. Pennsylvania is not subject to the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires federal approval for changes in voting laws.

"All together we are talking about millions of people -- people who are completely eligible to vote -- who would be shut out of the process," Hair said. "Voting is not a privilege or convenience that can or should be limited to some. It is a constitutionally protected right."

Lawmakers in many of the states have expressed concerns that in the absence of voter ID laws, the voting process can be more easily corrupted, despite a dearth of evidence that such fraud is actually taking place.

In many if not most cases, these voters who would be most directly affected by such laws are black or Latino. Voting rights advocates contend the share of minorities who do not drive or cannot afford the photo IDs or documents needed to obtain specific forms of government-issued photo ID is higher in almost every state.

As the November elections draw closer, the unsettled cases have left many voters unsure of what forms of ID they will need to present to vote, said Hair. In Pennsylvania, The Advancement Project is hearing reports of lines that are often out the door at agencies that issue driver's licenses and other forms of ID.

Often individuals who want to renew an expired ID or obtain the special free identification the state has agreed to issue stand for several hours, miss work or other obligations, Hair said. Some would-be voters have been able to avail themselves of the free ID option only after paying for other necessary supplemental documents, she said.

Texas claimed in the voter ID case that was decided Thursday that any voter who does not have one of the required forms of identification -- a state-issued ID or driver's license, a permit to carry a concealed handgun, a passport or a few other forms of ID -- effectively has opted not to vote.



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