The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country, struck down the controversial Texas Voter ID law on Wednesday, ruling 9-6 that the 2011 law violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act, a stunning rebuke of conservative Republicans who control the Texas Legislature and the state’s executive branch.
The appeals court’s 203-page ruling in Veasey v. Abbott can be read here.
The Texas law, initially stayed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, went into effect in 2013 and was immediately labeled the most restrictive Voter ID law in the country among 11 different state laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures to impose strict Voter ID requirements at the polls. The law was challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and various civil rights groups that said 600,000 eligible Texas voters would be disenfranchised because they lacked the necessary photo ID.
The Texas law required voters to produce one of seven forms of photo ID: a Texas driver’s license or Texas ID card, U.S. passport, a military ID, proof of U.S. citizenship with photo, or a concealed handgun license. Other forms of identification commonly accepted in other states were ruled unacceptable in Texas. Birth certificates, driver’s licenses from other states, student IDs, and federal government IDS were among the forms of identification the law prohibited at the polls (see chart below).
“We are very excited and happy that the Fifth Circuit Court has rejected the Texas Voter ID law,” said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, one of the civil rights groups that joined in lawsuits challenging the law. “We are very happy that the Fifth Circuit Court – a very conservative court – has acknowledged that SB 14 is unconstitutional and dilutes the vote.”
The entire Fifth Circuit bench heard arguments in the case in an unusual departure from the standard practice of a three-judge panel hearing appeals. Ten of the court’s 15 judges are Republican appointees. The majority ruling remands the case to a U.S. district court in Corpus Christi to show the intent of the law was intentionally discriminatory against minorities. A majority of the appeal court judges instructed the trial judge to outline measures to ensure that minority voters are not prevented from voting in the November general election.
More than 18 months ago, a U.S. district judge ruled that the Texas Voter ID law was unconstitutional and intentionally discriminated against minority voters.
“The Court holds that SB 14 creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote in a 147-page opinion issued in October 2014. “The Court further holds that SB 14 constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”
Reaction to the ruling from Texas Democrats and Republicans four months in advance of the Nov. 8 general election was swift.
“The Texas voter ID law was nothing more than a political point-shaving strategy by Republicans to win elections by depressing turnout,” U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (TX-20) stated in a press release. “The Fifth Circuit’s decision proves its discriminatory effect. The recent attacks on Americans’ right to vote in Texas and elsewhere contradict the ideals of our nation. Protecting people’s ability to choose who represents them in government is essential for a strong democracy.”
Republican-controlled legislatures in at least 11 states have justified restrictive Voter ID laws by arguing they prevent voter fraud, although Texas and other states challenged in the courts have been unable to demonstrate such a problem existed before the laws were passed.
SB 14 was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, but Wednesday’s decision drew the same justification from Gov. Gregg Abbott that was used five years ago to pass the legislation:
“The 5th Circuit rightly reversed the lower court’s finding of discriminatory purpose, but wrongly concluded the law had a discriminatory effect,” Abbott stated in a press release posted on his website. “Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the election process. As Attorney General I prosecuted cases against voter fraud across the State, and Texas will continue to make sure there is no illegal voting at the ballot box.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed Abbott’s justification for the law.
“It is imperative that the state government safeguards our elections and ensures the integrity of our democratic process,” Paxton stated in a press release. “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.”
Various independent studies have shown the real effect of the Voter ID laws is to reduce turnout of minority voters, who favor Democratic Party candidates. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act specifically “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups…”
“Today the Court affirmed that voting is a founding principal of our democracy and nothing shall abridge that right. We knew from the beginning that Texas’ Voter ID law was meant to disenfranchise voters,” stated Texas Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) in a press release. “The ruling will help the grandmother who no longer has her driver’s license exercise her right to vote. It will allow the college student, who was barred from using a student ID to vote, access to their polling place. For too long, the State prioritized keeping people away from a polling location with this draconian law. The Court confirmed that this egregious law was put into place to oppress Texas voters. Laws that hinder the minority vote have no place in America.
“The millions of dollars spent defending this unconstitutional law could have helped shore up Child Protective Services, replaced textbooks for Texas classrooms, or helped thousands of indigent seniors,” Menéndez added. “I’m calling on Attorney General Paxton to stop chasing windmills and face the reality that this law discriminates against voters. It’s all money flushed down the toilet on a ‘solution’ looking for a fictitious problem.”
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), a civil rights lawyer, said voting rights advocates will have to work hard to energize minority voters in advance of the Nov. 8 presidential election and make sure they arrive at the polls with acceptable ID and exercise their right to vote.
“It’s a great day for the good guys,” Bernal said Wednesday. “The Voting Rights Act is very clear, and the Texas Voter ID law is exactly the kind of activity it was designed to prevent: rogue legislators actively and intentionally trying to keep people of color away from the ballot box. To get a 9-6 decision from the Fifth Circuit guarantees this will go down as a textbook case.
“There is one paragraph in the Fifth Court’s ruling where the judges essentially say, ‘This is racist.’ Unfortunately, racism exists and this law is an example of that. Honestly, it’s embarrassing for our state,” Bernal said. “No one disagrees that people should demonstrate they are who they say they are when they go to the polls, but the Texas law made the numbers of ways you can do that incredibly limited, more than any other state, and they enacted this law in light of a complete absence of any voter fraud.”
One of the most hotly contested Congressional races in the country could be affected by the ruling. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), the first term congressman who represents the sprawling 23rd Congressional District, which reaches from San Antonio more than 500 miles to El Paso along the Texas-Mexico border, faces a challenge by former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, who won the seat in 2012 and then lost it to Hurd in November 2014. The district is 70% Mexican-American. Republicans tend to fare better in non-presidential election years and Democrats tend to fare better in presidential election years.
Hurd, the first Black Republican elected to Congress from Texas since Reconstruction after the Civil War, holds a substantial fundraising advantage over Gallego, but Wednesday’s appeals court decision buoyed the Democratic challenger.
“This ruling is a stunning victory for the fight to protect access to the ballot box for all Texans,” Gallego said in a statement. “The Fifth Circuit saw through the guise of SB 14, which was an attempt to intimidate certain groups of Texas voters. We celebrate this victory, but here on the ground in TX-23, the damage from this discriminatory law must be undone. We are redoubling our efforts to make sure that every eligible citizen knows that their access to the voting booth will not be impeded.
“Texas voters are the day’s clear winners,” Gallego said. “Congressman Will Hurd and his party’s nominee, Donald Trump, are today’s biggest losers.”
Top image: A voting registration booth at the Texas A&M-San Antonio mayoral forum. Photo by Scott Ball.