5th Circuit Finds Texas Voter ID Law Biased

     (CN) – A Texas law that requires voters to come to the polls with certain photo identification discriminates against minorities, the Fifth Circuit affirmed Wednesday.
     One of the nation’s strictest voter-identification laws, SB 14 requires all Texas voters to come to the polls with one of seven acceptable forms of photo ID.
     U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos blocked the law with an injunction last year, explaining in a 142-page decision that SB 14 “will disproportionately impact low-income Texans” who are less likely to have the needed ID.
     Since many poor Texans are minorities, Ramos reasoned, the law is discriminatory.
     A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reinstated the law in time for the November 2014 elections, however, amid concerns about voter confusion, and the U.S. Supreme Court later backed that decision.
     Revisiting the case now on the merits, the Fifth Circuit agreed with Ramos about SB 14’s discriminatory effect but vacated her finding that the Republican-majority Texas Legislature intentionally crafted the law to disenfranchise left-leaning minorities.
     The unanimous 51-page opinion by Judge Catherina Haynes notes how Ramos drew on Texas’ history of passing discriminatory electoral rules – from its use of all-white primaries from 1895 until 1944 to voter-literacy tests given until 1970.
     For the appellate panel, “the District Court’s heavy reliance on long-ago history was error,” Haynes wrote.
     Ramos also relied too heavily on “post-enactment speculation by opponents of SB 14” in deciding that lawmakers intended it to be discriminatory, the New Orleans-based court found.
     On remand, Ramos must re-examine the discriminatory-intent claim “using the proper legal standards and evidence,” the ruling states.
     In affirming “that SB 14 disproportionately impacts Hispanic and African-American voters,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act, Haynes cited a study finding that Hispanic and black registered voters were respectively 195 percent and 305 percent more likely than whites to lack SB 14 ID.
     The panel was less supportive, however, of the lower court’s finding that SB 14 is effectively a poll tax because it requires citizens who lack the proper identification to pay for a copy of their birth certificate, a prerequisite for the state to issue an Election Identification Certificate.
     For Haynes, the Texas Legislature’s passage of SB 983 this year, which eliminated the $2 to $3 fee that counties charge for birth certificates, discredited the poll-tax argument.
     The voter ID law was not a poll tax before SB 983, as well, the court found.
     “Plaintiffs and others similarly situated often struggle to gather the required documentation, make travel arrangements and obtain time off from work to travel to the county clerk or local registrar, and then to the DPS, all to receive an EIC,” Haynes wrote.
     She added that “Supreme Court jurisprudence has not equated these difficulties, standing alone, to a poll tax.”
     The panel also dismissed First and 14th Amendment claims against SB 14.
     “Since we affirm the district court’s determination that SB 14 has a discriminatory effect under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, plaintiffs will be entitled to the same relief they could access if they prevailed on these First and Fourteenth Amendment claims,” Haynes wrote.
     “Put another way, the rights and remedies are intertwined and, therefore, we need not decide the constitutional issue,” she added.
     In remanding the case to Ramos, the court advised her that, if she only finds SB 14 violated the Voting Rights Act, she should try to keep the law intact out of deference to the Texas Legislature’s goal of preventing voter fraud.
     “Simply reverting to the system in place before SB 14’s passage would not fully respect these policy choices – it would allow voters to cast ballots after presenting less secure forms of identification like utility bills, bank statements, or paychecks,” Haynes wrote.
     The law’s fate is far from certain.
     “If on remand the district court finds that SB 14 was passed with a discriminatory purpose, then the law must be invalidated,” Haynes wrote.
     Opponents of the law are happy with the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.
     “We are greatly encouraged by today’s decision,” Texas NAACP president Gary Bledsoe said in a statement. “This decision acknowledges the problems Texas African American and Latino voters have experienced as cited by their leaders since the law was first implemented, that it blatantly discriminates against minority voters.”

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