Texas Voter ID Law Struck for Minority Bias
(CN) - The law requiring Texas voters to show ID at the polls disenfranchises minorities and the poor, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.
The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature passed the law, Senate Bill 14, in 2011.
It requires all Texas voters to come to the polls with photo identification, limited to a driver's license; personal identification card or concealed handgun license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety; a U.S. passport; a U.S. military ID bearing the person's photo; or a U.S. citizenship certificate showing the person's photo.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and state lawmakers argued SB 14 is necessary to prevent voter fraud.
Because of the state's history of discrimination, however, it is one of 16 states that must get Justice Department approval for any changes to voting procedures or election law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Texas filed suit in Washington, D.C., seeking a declaration that SB 14 "neither has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race."
After a week-long hearing in July, a three-judge panel described SB 14 as "the most stringent in the country."
The court rejected "social science evidence" cited by Texas that purportedly showed how people vote regardless of ID requirements.
"We are unable to credit this line of argument because the effect of voter ID laws on turnout remains a matter of dispute among social scientists," according to the 56-page opinion authored by U.S. District Judge David Tatel.
Texas also argued that telephone voter surveys show that Latinos, blacks and whites in Texas all possess IDS at the same rate, making the burdens equal for all voters.
But the United States countered that Texas' studies were defective. It presented its own study showing that black and Latino registered voters were almost twice as likely as white registered voters not have photo ID.
The panel said they could not rely on phone surveys taken by Texas, however, since those surveys do not reveal who was contacted, if they were representative of the target population and if their answers were skewed.
"Texas bears the burden of proving that nothing in SB 14 'would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise,'" Tatel wrote.
"Because all of Texas's evidence on retrogression is some combination of invalid, irrelevant, and unreliable, we have little trouble concluding that Texas has failed to carry its burden," he added.
Although the law would give voters lacking an acceptable form of photo ID the option to obtain a photographic "election identification certificate" from the Texas Department of Public Safety, 81 out of 254 Texas counties lack a DPS office, according to the ruling.
"This means that many would-be voters who need to obtain an EIC - individuals who by definition have no valid driver's license - will have to find some way to travel long distances to obtain one," Tatel wrote. "This is hardly an insignificant concern, especially given that 'everything is bigger in Texas.'"
The ruling marks the second judicial setback this week for Texas, as another federal panel threw out the state's redistricting plan on Tuesday.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called the ruling "wrong."
"The Supreme Court of the United States has already upheld voter ID laws as a constitutional method of ensuring integrity at the ballot box," Abott 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 - and were upheld by the Supreme Court. The state will appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where we are confident we will prevail."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder meanwhile applauded the decision.
"The Department of Justice opposed preclearance of the Texas voter ID law because of the harm it would cause minority voters across the state of Texas," Holder said in a statement. "Under the proposed law, many of those without the required voter identification would be forced to travel great distances to get one - and some would have to pay for the documents they might need to do so. The Legislature rejected reasonable efforts to mitigate these burdens. We are pleased with the court's decision to deny preclearance because of these racially discriminatory effects."