5th Circuit Hears Texas Voter ID Law Dispute

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Texas voter ID law were heard Tuesday by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
     Texas SB 14, enacted in 2011, is the strictest voting law in the country and requires voters to produce identification from a very limited list of types of ID.
     Texas State offers an identification card that is ostensibly “free,” but opponents say that because a birth certificate is necessary to obtain the card and birth certificates aren’t free, there is a cost associated.
     “Why would the legislature offer you a free birth certificate?” U.S. Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes asked during arguments presented by Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller.
     Keller argued that citizens in Texas who wish to vote have numerous options for identification to present at the polls and that ID is not required for citizens who wish to mail in their vote.
     Though not stated in Keller’s arguments, a concealed weapon permit is among permissible identification, while university student ID cards are not accepted.
     Opponents of the law say the law’s strict requirements keep certain groups of voters, including black and Latino citizens, from voting in person, and that more than 600,000 Texas voters are affected.
     Natasha Korgaonkar, Assistant Counsel for the NAACP, said in an interview following the hearing that while Texas calls its state-issued voter registration cards “free,” actually they are not free at all. She said that in order to get the cards voters must first have certain identification, such as a birth certificate, and that plaintiffs have had to pay up to $40 to obtain the document.
     In Texas, only residents over the age of 65 are eligible to vote by mail, Korgaonkar said. She said that many people do not wish to vote in isolation; they would prefer to vote as a community, and that requiring them to vote without going to the polls is a violation of their basic rights.
     Korgaonkar said one of the plaintiffs in this case is an elderly woman from Louisiana who was born at home during segregation and was never issued a birth certificate. Korgaonkar underscored that the woman was born at home because at the time it was illegal for blacks to deliver in white hospitals and that requiring the woman to vote in isolation now simply because she was not afforded equal rights to whites is unconstitutional.
     Judge Haynes called it “very troubling” that opponents of the Texas law speculate the law was put in place simply to prevent minorities from voting.
     The thinking that something was put forward out of bad motives is “very troubling,” Haynes said and called that line “the rankest sort of speculation.”
     Erin Flynn, of the U.S. Department of Justice, responded that a disparity exists between the white and black vote across Texas, as well as between the white and Latino votes, and that the gap exists because of the Texas law, SB 14, that requires ID.
     Flynn pointed out that in 2005, 2007 and 2009 the state said ID wasn’t a requirement to vote. She additionally said there have been a “host of available options” available to the state to check whether voters are citizens other than requiring a few select identifications.
     Chad Dunn of Brazil & Dunn in Houston then argued that the state requiring voters to have identification essentially amounted to a poll tax.
     Dunn said the district court’s finding that the voter ID was unconstitutional signaled to the legislature that there is a problem and that now it is time to “clean out the stalls.”
     “Clean out the stalls?!” Judge Haynes asked. She said that some of those same people who created the rule were still in the legislature.
     Haynes said that anyway is it unknown if the more than 600,000 people who didn’t vote in the last election don’t have birth certificates, or maybe they just didn’t want to vote.
     Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller said the state was unable to locate a single voter who couldn’t vote and said there is no constitutional right to vote in person.
     “Voters without birth certificates can still vote by mail,” Keller said.
     The hearing lasted a little over an hour.
     Judge Haynes, an appointee of George W. Bush, was the most outspoken of the three-judge panel. The other judges present were Chief Judge Carl Stewart, a Clinton nominee, and U.S. District Judge Nannette Brown, an appointee of Obama.
     The judges did not say when a decision will be made.
     In 2012, a three-judge panel in Texas district court unanimously found that the law discriminated against minority voters.
     A trial of consolidated cases alleging that Texas’s voter ID laws were adopted for discriminatory reasons, in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act took place in September 2014.
     Following the trial, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled the Texas photo ID requirement violates the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. She found that the law was enacted for the purpose of discriminating against black and Latino voters, and that it denies minority voters an opportunity to participate in the political process. She also found the voter ID law unconstitutionally burdens the right to vote, and functions as an unconstitutional poll tax.
     In an ironic turn of events, a security guard at the 5th Circuit before the hearing didn’t want to accept a press pass as identification to enter the building.
     “Ordinarily,” he said, “only a driver’s license is accepted.”

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