Judge to Texas: Voter ID Law 2.0 Still Discriminates Against Minorities

by | August 24, 2017

By Chuck Lindell

A federal judge Wednesday tossed out the Texas voter ID law, saying changes recently adopted by the Legislature fell short of fixing a law that was drafted to intentionally discriminate against minority voters.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi issued an injunction permanently barring Texas from enforcing its voter ID requirements, saying the Republican-drafted law violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution because it was "enacted with discriminatory intent -- knowingly placing additional burdens on a disproportionate number of Hispanic and African-American voters."

Ramos rejected arguments from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and officials with the Trump administration's Department of Justice who said changes signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this summer were sufficient to protect voting rights.

Although an improvement because voters could present additional forms of ID, Ramos wrote, the new law "does not eliminate the discrimination" that continues to impose undue burdens on Latino and African-American voters, who tend to favor Democrats.

"Elimination of (the law) 'root and branch' is required, as the law has no legitimacy," Ramos concluded.

Paxton said he will appeal the ruling, calling it "outrageous."

"The U.S. Department of Justice is satisfied that the amended voter ID law has no discriminatory purpose or effect," he said. "Safeguarding the integrity of elections in Texas is essential to preserving our democracy."

It was the second setback in a week for Texas in voting rights cases.

A separate federal court on Aug. 15 ruled that Republicans in the Legislature drafted congressional maps earlier this decade with the intent to discriminate against minority voters and ordered two districts to be redrawn, including one based in Travis County and another that includes part of Bastrop County. Paxton plans to appeal that ruling as well.

In Wednesday's ruling, Ramos declined to craft a new voter ID law, saying the finding of intentional discrimination favored barring enforcement "of any vestige of the voter ID law."

"The lack of evidence of in-person voter impersonation fraud in Texas belies any urgency for an independently fashioned remedy from this court at this time," Ramos wrote.

Those challenging the Texas law also asked Ramos to require Texas to get federal approval for any election law changes under a Voting Rights Act provision for jurisdictions found to intentionally discriminate. That decision will come later, Ramos said, giving all sides until Aug. 31 to submit briefs on whether to schedule a hearing on the matter.

Ramos left intact one portion of the original law that wasn't challenged -- increasing penalties for voting when ineligible, for voting more than once in an election or for impersonating another voter to a second-degree felony with up to 20 years in prison.

When passed by the Legislature in 2011, the Texas voter ID law was among the most restrictive in the nation, requiring registered voters to present one of seven forms of government-issued photo ID -- such as a driver's license or a license to carry a handgun -- before casting a ballot.

Civil rights groups, Democratic politicians and minority voters sued in 2013, arguing that the Republican-backed law violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by targeting low-income, Latino and African-American voters, who were less likely to have the approved forms of ID.

Ramos agreed, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of her ruling in 2016, saying the voter ID law discriminated against minorities and poor people, infringing on the voting rights of about 600,000 registered Texas voters who lacked a government-issued photo ID.

The appeals court, however, returned the case to Corpus Christi and directed Ramos to determine whether the law was written to be intentionally discriminatory.

It was, Ramos ruled in April -- dismissing Republican assertions that the law was intended to combat fraud, with the judge calling that rationale a "pretext" to suppress the voting rights of minorities and reduce support for Democrats.

The case then shifted to determining what remedies Ramos should order, prompting Wednesday's ruling.

Under the recently passed Senate Bill 5, a registered voter who lacks a required photo ID can cast a ballot after showing documents that list a name and address, including a voter registration certificate, utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.

Such voters would have to sign a "declaration of reasonable impediment" stating that they couldn't acquire a photo ID due to a lack of transportation, lack of a birth certificate, work schedule, disability, illness, family responsibility, or lost or stolen ID.

SB 5's declaration and expanded list of IDs were modeled largely on interim rules that Ramos put in place for the 2016 general election.

Paxton argued that Texas couldn't be held liable for adopting the judge-drawn rules, but Ramos said Paxton presented no evidence that the changes fixed problems with the law.

(c)2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas