Federal Judge Strikes Texas Voter ID Law as Racially Discriminatory

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) — Texas’ new voter ID law was struck down Wednesday by a federal judge who said it perpetuated voting rules designed to disenfranchise minorities.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos permanently enjoined Senate Bill 5, finding that it ameliorates but does not do away with provisions that made its predecessor, Senate Bill 14, the most restrictive voter ID law in the United States.

Senate Bill 5 was to take effect in January 2018. But the injunction means Texas will return to the days when voter registration cards, which do not include a photo, allowed access to the polls.

Texas officials and the Trump administration claimed in court filings that SB 5, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in June, should stand because it incorporates changes the Fifth Circuit said would make the state’s photo ID law comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling “outrageous” Wednesday and vowed to appeal it.

Claiming they were under pressure from constituents to crack down on voter fraud, the Republican-majority Texas Legislature passed SB 14 in 2011 along party lines.

Gonzales Ramos, an appointee of President Barack Obama, has proven to be an insurmountable obstacle in Texas’ quest to get court approval of its voter ID laws.

She scorched Texas in a 2014 ruling in which she said SB 14 would disproportionately affect poor black and Latino Texans, who typically for Democrats, and pointed out that in the 10 years before SB 14 became law only two cases of in-person voter fraud were prosecuted to conviction, out of 20 million votes cast.

The en banc Fifth Circuit agreed with Gonzales Ramos in a July 2016 ruling that SB 14 had a discriminatory impact on minority voters, and sent the case back to her, ordering her to come up with interim voting rules for the November presidential election.

She approved a plan that watered down SB 14 by letting voters bring a certified birth certificate, bank statement, paycheck or utility bill to the polls and sign a “reasonable impediment” declaration stating why they could not get SB 14 ID.

The Texas Legislature adopted the affidavit provision for SB 5, but it did away with an “Other” box voters could check and write a reason for not having state-approved ID

SB 5 restricts voters to citing one of seven specific reasons on the affidavit for not having the right photo ID, including work schedule, family responsibilities and disability or illness.

Gonzales Ramos found that SB 5’s elimination of the Other box, combined with an increase of the penalty for making a false statement on the declaration to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, were crucial mistakes by the Legislature.

“The most concerning difference between the interim DRI [declaration of reasonable impediment] and the SB 5 DRI is the elimination of the ‘other’ category as the basis for the voter’s lack of SB 14 ID,” she wrote.

She said the missing Other category would make some registered voters avoid voting out of fear that checking the wrong box could get them prosecuted for perjury.

“Listing a limited number of reasons for lack of SB 14 is problematic because persons untrained in the law and who are subjecting themselves to penalties of perjury may take a restrictive view of the listed reasons,” she wrote.

“Because of ignorance, a lack of confidence, or poor literacy, they may be unable to claim an impediment to which they are entitled for fear that their opinion on the matter would not comport with a trained prosecutor’s legal opinion.”

Gonzalez Ramos also faulted the Legislature for not designating any funds to educate voters on SB 5, though Texas officials promised to spend $4 million schooling voters and poll workers on the law.

Gonzales Ramos also said that Texas should have added to the list of acceptable voter IDs with SB 5, but did not.

SB 14 let registered voters present one of seven forms of photo identification to vote. Concealed handgun permits made the list, but not student IDs.

“SB 5 does not meaningfully expand the types of photo IDs that can qualify, even though the court was clearly critical of Texas having the most restrictive list in the country. For instance, Texas still does not permit federal or Texas state government photo IDs — even those it issues to its own employees,” she wrote.

She issued permanent injunctions against SB 5 and SB 14, finding that the latter violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments.

She ordered the parties to submit briefs by Aug. 31 on whether she should retain jurisdiction over Texas voter ID laws.

Federal judges can make states or counties found to have intentionally discriminated get permission from the federal government before new election laws take effect, under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act.

During Obama’s presidency, the Department of Justice joined the legal challenge of SB14, backing plaintiffs U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and others.

But the Department of Justice withdrew from the case after President Donald Trump appointed former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general, and Sessions was confirmed by the Senate.

The injunctions are another blow to Texas’ track record on voter rights.

A three-judge panel in San Antonio Federal Court ruled on Aug. 15 that Texas gerrymandered two congressional districts to prevent Latinos from picking their preferred candidates, and ordered that the districts be partially redrawn before the 2018 elections.

“From discriminatory gerrymandering to discriminatory voter ID laws, it has become entirely clear that Texas Republicans are rigging our election system,” Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, told The Associated Press.

Texas has vowed to take the voter ID case to the Supreme Court. It asked the high court in September 2016 to review the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.

The Supreme Court denied that request in January, but Chief Justice John Roberts told Texas to seek another hearing after the case plays out before Gonzales Ramos.

Texas had spent at least $3.5 million defending SB 14 as of June 2016, according to the NAACP.

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