Federal Judge Softens Texas Voter ID Law

     CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) — Texans can vote with a paycheck or utility bill in the upcoming presidential election, a federal judge ordered Wednesday, approving an interim plan that dials back a voter ID law found to discriminate against minorities.
     The Fifth Circuit ruled last month that Texas’ Voter ID law, widely regarded as the strictest in the nation, has a discriminatory effect on black and Latino voters. It remanded the case to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi to craft changes to ease entry to the polls.
     Former Gov. Rick Perry signed the controversial Senate Bill 14 in May 2011. An estimated 600,000 Texans lacked one of seven acceptable forms of photo identification under SB 14.
     Ramos put the onus on the Justice Department and the Texas Attorney General’s Office to come up with acceptable remedies, and they submitted an interim plan Aug. 3.
     The judge approved the plan at a Wednesday hearing, allowing Texans whose names are listed on the voter rolls to present a certified birth certificate, bank statement, utility bill, government check or paycheck, along with a signed affidavit — also known as a “reasonable impediment declaration” — explaining why they could not obtain an acceptable photo ID.
     “After asking a voter if he or she has SB 14 ID, election officials shall not question or challenge voters concerning the voter’s lack of SB 14 ID and the voter’s claimed impediment to obtaining SB 14 ID prior to allowing a voter to cast a regular ballot with a reasonable impediment declaration,” the order states.
     Ramos approved an affidavit form that instructs voters to list why they could not get an SB 14 photo ID by checking a box next to several acceptable explanations, including lack of transportation, disability or illness, work schedule, lost or stolen photo ID and family responsibilities.
     Voters can also check an “other reasonable impediment or difficulty” box and write their reason for not having photo ID.
     Under the interim plan, election officials can’t reject an identification document if the address listed thereon does not match the address listed on the voter rolls.
     The plan also allows registered voters to cast their ballots even if their SB 14 photo ID expired up to four years ago.
     With Election Day less than three months away, Ramos ordered Texas to develop a “detailed voter education plan” by Aug. 15 and to budget at least $2.5 million for it.
     She also ordered the state to create an election official training program by Aug. 15.
     In addition to finding SB 14 has a discriminatory effect on minority voters, the Fifth Circuit left the door open for the Justice Department and other plaintiffs’ attorneys to argue before Ramos that the Texas Legislature intentionally crafted the law to disenfranchise minorities.
     The interim plan that Ramos approved only addresses SB 14’s discriminatory effects. The discriminatory intent question will be resolved after Election Day.
     The Brennan Center for Justice praised Ramos’ order as part of a trend of federal courts stepping in to protect citizens’ voting rights against overzealous photo ID laws.
     “The Texas ruling is part of a string of recent court decisions — in Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Wisconsin — rolling back or striking down voting restrictions ahead of the November election. Across the board, courts ruled that states passed restrictive laws with ‘surgical precision’ to exclude certain voters, including minorities, students, and the elderly,” the organization said in a statement.
     The Justice Department’s co-plaintiffs include the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives.

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