A federal court struck down Texas' voter identification law on Thursday, calling it the “most stringent” of any in the country and saying it would disproportionately burden the state's minorities and poor as they tried to cast their ballots this fall.
“That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect,” the three-member panel in the District of Columbia ruled in a unanimous 56-page opinion. “It imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”
The decision creates uncertainty about the state's election procedures barely two months ahead of the November voting. Texas Governor Rick Perry signed the law early in 2011, but it has not yet been put into effect, awaiting federal clearance. State officials want to implement it before November, but Thursday's decision, and the appeals that will follow, have cast doubt on that timeline.
The decision could also serve as a warning to other states with new Voter ID laws. Even though Texas had yet to implement its law, officials elsewhere have seen already-implemented laws subject to challenge. Many are concerned that late-breaking rulings could sow confusion and upend Election Day preparations, as Stateline reported Thursday.
In striking down Texas' law, the court rejected every attempt state officials made to show that it would not disproportionately affect poor and minority voters. That was a key test under the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires pre-clearance of election changes in Texas (and other southern states) because they have a history of racially motivated voter suppression.
“Everything Texas has submitted as affirmative evidence,” the court said, “is unpersuasive, invalid, or both.”
Texas officials also argued that if their law was unconstitutional under the Voting Rights Act, then the act must be unconstitutional itself. The decision on Thursday didn't answer that question, and instead ordered a hearing at a later date.
Shortly after the ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott pledged to take his state's case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court of the United States has already upheld Voter ID laws,” Abbott said in a statement. “Today's decision is wrong on the law and improperly prevents Texas from implementing the same type of ballot integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana.”
Perry, too, said other states' examples should serve as a path for Texas being allowed to implement its law. “I will continue to work with Attorney General Abbott to fight for the same right that other states already have to protect their elections,” Perry said in a statement.
But in striking the law, the court was careful to delineate among various state laws, saying Texas' example represented a special case.
“Nothing in this opinion remotely suggests that section 5 bars all covered jurisdictions from implementing photo ID laws,” the court said, referring to the provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires preclearance. “The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that — at least to our knowledge — is the most stringent in the country.”
Indeed, under the Voting Rights Act, Texas attorneys faced the burden of showing their law would not create a disproportionate burden for poor and minority voters. The court insisted that it had failed to do so.
The judges laid out a number of modifications the state could have made to ease the burden: waiving fees for documents to gain an ID, reimbursing poor voters for travel costs, or holding evening and weekend hours at ID offices. “Texas's lawyers have only their client to blame,” the court said. “Put another way, if counsel faced an ‘impossible burden,' it was because of the law Texas enacted — nothing more, nothing less.”
The matter is now likely to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, where Texas is expected to file a petition to block the ruling and allow implementation of the law before November, elections law expert Rick Hasen wrote in a blog post analyzing the decision.
“If this happens, this will be a major question for the Roberts Court,” he wrote, “and it would have to be decided in short order.”