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Federal judge throws out some claims in protracted fight over Texas voting restrictions

While the narrow order dismissed some civil rights claims for technical reasons, it otherwise largely sided with voting rights groups in the court battle.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — In a limited order this week, a federal judge threw out some civil rights and discrimination claims brought as part of a complex and ongoing legal dispute over strict new voting rules in Texas.

The lawsuit filed last year alleges that the rules violate the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting voter assistance and making it easier for “partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and poll workers.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other supporters say the law in question, Senate Bill 1, is intended to improve “trust and confidence in our elections” and “make it harder for fraudulent votes to be cast.” The bill is part of a nationwide effort by Republicans to tighten voting restrictions following conspiracies about dead voters and rigged voting machines in the 2020 elections. The Texas secretary of state’s office has said the 2020 elections in Texas were “smooth and secure.”

State officials have tried dismiss the case, arguing that civil rights groups and federal officials do not have standing to sue them. Those efforts have so far failed — and if anything, organized opposition to the bill has continued to grow.

In total, at least five separate lawsuits have been consolidated into a massive legal battle over the future of SB 1. Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice also joined the case, saying it had an interest in preventing “intentional discrimination in voting.”

In a separate court fight — which the DOJ has also joined — civil rights groups are also suing over the state’s 2021 redistricting plans, which they say “unlawfully dilute the voting strength of Latinos.” A different federal judge last month ordered state lawmakers to turn over redistricting records as part of that battle. Lawmakers had filed hundreds of pages detailing what they said was “confidential communications” that should be exempt from discovery orders.

In his order on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez, a George W. Bush appointee, did not provide a clear win to either side in the protracted legal fight.

On one hand, Rodriguez did agree with Texas officials that civil rights groups had in some cases failed to a state a claim, meaning they could not adequately show a violation of federal law or a potential injury to voters. He dismissed a handful of claims brought by the civil rights groups, which include the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Workers Defense Action Fund.

On the other hand, Rodriguez’s order was hardly kind to Texas officials. Over the course of 61 pages, he detailed not only why civil rights groups had standing to sue, but also how they’d “clearly” established that SB1 could have discriminatory effects on voting rights.

The judge waved off efforts by Texas officials to have more or all of the lawsuit dismissed — including the state’s unusual argument that civil rights groups shouldn’t be able to sue because “the organizations themselves do not have a disability.”

“It is well settled,” Rodriguez wrote, “that an organization may sue as the representative of its members.”

While past filings in this lawsuit have largely hinged on nuances of civil rights law, Tuesday’s order was interesting because it detailed the lived experiences of disabled voters in Texas.

The civil plaintiffs presented examples from at least three voters — all members of the disability voting-rights group REV UP — whom they said could be harmed by Texas’ new voting law.

These examples were “non-exhaustive,” plaintiffs said, and represented just some of the disabled Texans who could face voting difficulties if SB 1 is allowed to stand.

One person, Ruben Fernandez, has cerebral palsy and “a label of Intellectual/Development Disability.” He “requires assistance to vote in person,” including for “physically navigating” polling locations and to “read what is on the screen for him.” Fernandez does not always understand his ballot and sometimes needs help with “the information or words" on it.

He also needs help understanding voting machines, including their “features and functionality.” He “needs assistance removing his printed paper ballot from the voting machine and placing it in the ballot counter.”

SB1, voting rights groups alleged, “would not permit any of this.”

Another Texas voter, Amy Litzinger, also has cerebral palsy and is quadriplegic. Because of this, she needs help with both in-person and mail-in voting.

She needs help putting her ballot into vote-reading machines because she does not have “dexterity to do this independently.” She also needs help with other challenges she might face with in-person voting, including getting her ID out of her backpack and drinking from her water bottle if she gets thirsty.

When voting by mail, Litzinger needs help putting her ballot into an envelope. She also needs help marking her votes.

Some of Litzinger’s assistants said they couldn’t help her in the 2022 elections, the lawsuit alleges, because they were afraid of being prosecuted under SB 1.

After hearing stories like these, Rodriguez declined to issue a broader dismissal order against the lawsuit, as state officials had hoped. He was only dismissing limited parts of the lawsuit, he said, because the plaintiffs had not adequately clarified their legal theories or appeared to be challenging other sections of the law.

Notably, Rodriguez also dismissed these claims without prejudice — meaning the civil rights groups involved in this suit could bring roughly the same claims again. If history is any indication, this latest fight over voting rights in Texas is unlikely to end anytime soon.

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