Texas, Rights Groups Prepare for Voter ID Showdown

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – Texas is sticking to its guns, arguing its voter ID law was passed to prevent voter fraud, ahead of a hearing on whether the law was crafted to disenfranchise minorities.

Passed by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, Senate Bill 14 has been tied up by federal rules or in federal court since former Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed it in May 2011.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos will hear arguments next month or early next year from attorneys representing the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, League of United Latin American Citizens and African-American U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, among other plaintiffs who challenged the law in June 2013.

The U.S. Justice Department is also a plaintiff in the case, but experts say it may drop out when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January because Trump’s pick for attorney general, Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, supports photo ID laws.

After a nine-day bench trial in 2014, Ramos found SB 14 is discriminatory in violation of the Voting Rights Act because poor Texans are less likely to have one of seven acceptable forms of SB 14 photo ID, and blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be living in poverty.

Around 608,000 registered voters in Texas do not have proper SB 14 ID, which represents 4.5 percent of all registered voters in Texas, according to the case record.

Ramos issued an injunction ordering Texas to revert back to the voting rules in place before SB 14 took effect that let registered voters establish their identities with voter-registration cards that listed their name, gender and birth year.

Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans and the en banc court agreed with Ramos in July of this year that SB 14 has a discriminatory effect on minorities, who typically vote for Democratic candidates.

Ramos approved an interim plan for the Nov. 8 election under which Texans could present a certified birth certificate, utility bill or paycheck at the polls and sign an affidavit stating why they could not get SB 14 ID.

The Fifth Circuit also ordered Ramos to hold a hearing after Election Day on whether Texas intentionally crafted SB 14 to disenfranchise minority voters.

Texas has argued from the start that SB 14 is needed to prevent voter fraud and ensure voter confidence in elections.

It repeated that claim in a proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law brief that it filed Nov. 18. Such briefs outline arguments a party must prove to prevail in a bench trial, and are comparable to a jury charge.

Texas was just one of many states to push for voter ID laws in response to the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Though Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote that year, issues with ballots in Florida led the U.S. Supreme Court to award his opponent George W. Bush the presidency, Angela Colmenero, chief counsel with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, wrote in the brief.

“The push for a photo-voter ID law, which began following the 2000 election, was hitting its peak in 2011. By then, nearly 1,000 voter ID bills had been introduced across the country and numerous legislatures had passed such laws,” Texas’ brief states.

Colmenero says Texas Republican lawmakers, who had a substantial majority in the Legislature in 2011, were being pressured by their constituents that year to pass a voter ID law with “minimal loopholes.”

“The result was SB 14, and the bill would have been enacted regardless of any other alleged secretly held legislative purpose,” the brief states.

But the NAACP and the other plaintiffs claim in their own brief that it’s clear Republicans in the Texas Legislature wanted to tamp down voter participation of Democrat-leaning minorities by the forms of photo ID they made acceptable under SB 14.

Concealed handgun-licenses are accepted and 7.1 percent of white registered voters in Texas have them, but only 2.4 percent of Hispanics and 3.3 percent of African-Americans do, the brief states, citing a study by Dr. Steven Ansolabehere, who testified for the plaintiffs in the September 2014 trial before Ramos.

Neither student IDs nor government employee IDs can be used under SB 14, further evidence of discriminatory intent, the plaintiffs say in their Nov. 18 brief.

“There are approximately 1.5 million government employees in the State of Texas, and they are disproportionally African-American and Latino, compared to the general population. The disparity holds among registered voters: 16.2 percent of black registered voters and 12.0 percent of Latino registered voters are government employees, while only 6.3 percent of white registered voters are government employees,” the plaintiffs’ brief states.

The NAACP and other groups also claim that although Texans can get free election-identification certificates with their photo on them from Texas Department of Public Safety under SB 14, the fact that Texas legislators put the law enforcement agency in charge of administering the certificates also points to discriminatory intent.

Georgia and Indiana have also passed voter ID laws, but they put election officials or agencies other than law enforcement in charge of issuing no-fee voter ID cards.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS, employs state troopers in its offices, and is apt to intimidate Hispanic and African-American voters, who are more likely than whites to have had negative experiences with law enforcement, the plaintiffs claim.

“Edcouch City Councilman Daniel Guzman, who represents a predominantly Latino and socioeconomically depressed community in Hidalgo County, testified that when he offered to transport voters who did not have SB 14 ID to DPS, many refused to go with him for fear of what would happen to them at DPS,” the brief states, citing Guzman’s testimony from the September 2014 trial. “He explained, ‘Some people are hesitant to step into a Department of Public Safety office where you have state troopers. Some people are afraid that they might owe citations. Some people are afraid that they owe child support and their names are going to get run once they go get an I.D. card and get arrested on the spot.’”

In addition, the plaintiffs argue, Texas’ claim that SB 14 is needed to prevent voter fraud is bogus.

“In-person voter impersonation is extremely rare in Texas elections. The Office of the Texas Attorney General and the Office of the Secretary of State are aware of only one conviction and one guilty plea for in-person voter impersonation in any election in the State of Texas from 2002 until trial in September 2014,” the brief states.

The NAACP and the other plaintiffs say attempted fraud is much more prevalent in absentee voting. Under SB 14, people 65 or older can vote early by mail without providing a photo ID.

Though Texas is a “majority-minority” state with non-whites making up a majority of the population, most elderly Texans are white.

“Anglo Texans are substantially more likely than Hispanic or African-American Texans to be 65 or older. Therefore, Anglo voters are far more likely to qualify to vote by mail on the basis of age – and thus able to vote without presenting SB 14 ID – than Hispanic or African-American voters,” the plaintiffs claim.

Despite the scant evidence of voter fraud, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who co-authored SB 14 while serving in the Texas senate, said he is intent on passing a new voter ID law during the state’s 2017 legislative session that starts in January.

He listed Voter ID as number five in a Nov. 14 statement announcing his top 10 legislative priorities for the new legislative session.

“I firmly believe having a photo voter ID law is essential.  Citizens must be able to trust the certified outcome of every election and we must protect the voting rights of every eligible voter in Texas,” Patrick said in a statement to Courthouse News. “As a state senator, I co-authored a voter ID bill which unfortunately was not upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. I am determined to pass legislation this session to assure the integrity of the vote in Texas.”

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