Judge Weighs Scrapping Reformed Texas Voter-ID Law

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – Opponents of Texas’ new voter ID law asked a federal judge this week to return the state’s election rules to the days when people could access the polls with a voter registration card.

Texas has been embroiled in a legal battle over its voter ID laws since 2011 when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed Senate Bill 14, claiming it was necessary to address Texans’ voter fraud concerns.

Buoyed by the election of President Donald Trump, who claims he lost the popular vote in November to Hillary Clinton because 2 million people voted illegally, Texas claims in court filings that changes it’s made to its voter ID law sufficiently address the concerns of the Fifth Circuit that found SB 14 disenfranchises minorities, who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Texas claims its new law, Senate Bill 5, complies with the Voting Rights Act because it lets registered voters who don’t have one of eight acceptable forms of photo ID vote after signing a reasonable-impediment declaration stating why they couldn’t get the right ID.

It’s now up to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to decide whether to block SB 5 from taking effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

Gonzales Ramos ruled in April that Texas had intentionally crafted SB14 to suppress the votes of minorities and is now considering whether SB5 goes far enough to undo the voting restrictions imposed by SB 14.

Six Texas voters and La Union Del Pueblo Entero Inc., a community-activist group, the plaintiffs in a legal challenge of SB 14, urged Gonzales Ramos in a brief on Monday to enjoin SB 5.

The plaintiffs, Texas and the United States all filed briefs Monday to meet a deadline set by the judge.

Other plaintiffs in the case are Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The voters claim SB 5 is insufficient because it doesn’t mandate that Texas spend a set amount of money to educate voters and poll workers on the new rules, leaving it up to the discretion of state officials.

They also argue that SB 5 contains a punitive provision meant to scare registered minority voters away from the polls.

SB 5 increases the potential penalty for lying on the reasonable-impediment affidavit from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by up to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

La Union Del Pueblo Entero and its co-plaintiffs asked Gonzales Ramos in their brief to retain jurisdiction over Texas voter ID laws, and to return Texas to the pre-SB 14 rules when registered voters could vote by presenting voter registration cards, which do not include a photo, to election officials.

“The mountain of factual findings made by this court and already affirmed by the Fifth Circuit indicate that the legislature acted discriminatorily and in its own self-interest, because the political party in power believed that it could gain partisan advantage by a strict voter ID law that would limit the growing political power of minority voters. Those demographic changes persist and provide increasing incentive for racial discrimination,” attorney Lindsey Cohan wrote for the plaintiffs.

Cohan works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit law firm based in Washington, D.C.

Texas countered in its own brief that the reasonable-impediment affidavit allays any fears that minority voters will be denied the right to vote.

“The record does not show that even a single voter will face any material burden in voting under SB 5’s reasonable-impediment exception to SB 14’s photo-ID requirement,” the state claims.

Texas also urged Gonzales Ramos to decline the plaintiffs’ invitation for her to retain jurisdiction over it, claiming that in the Voting Rights Act, “Congress restricted when courts can order judicial preclearance of election laws.”

The U.S. government switched sides in the case after Trump took office in January.

The Justice Department joined the legal challenge of SB 14 under former President Barack Obama.

But the Justice Department withdrew its claims that SB 14 is purposely discriminatory after the Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s appointment of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.

In its brief, the U.S. government argues that precedent established by federal courts requires Gonzales Ramos to defer to the Texas Legislature’s chosen remedy, SB 5, and to decline to retain jurisdiction over Texas.

“Indeed, this rule of federal judicial deference to state legislative prerogatives is so strong that this court may not ‘substitut[e]’ even an ‘objectively superior’ judicial remedy for SB 5,” the brief states. (Brackets in original.)

But the challengers claim in court filings the government’s involvement in the case should be restricted because it flip-flopped.

“The United States previously asserted that the ‘appropriate remedy’ for the intent violation is a ‘permanent and final injunction precluding implementation of the voter identification provisions of SB 14,’ which should lead to Texas’s ‘enforcing the voter identification requirements for in-person voting in effect immediately prior to the enactment and implementation of SB 14,’” the plaintiffs’ brief states. “Also, contrary to the position that it presses now, the United States unequivocally stated that the court had the inherent power to retain jurisdiction to review future legislative action.”

Texas takes voting crimes very seriously, though experts say such crimes happen so infrequently they have a negligible effect on elections.

Tarrant County prosecutors charged Rosa Maria Ortega, of Grand Prairie, with two counts of felony illegal voting after she submitted false information in her voter registration forms.

A jury convicted her of the charges in February and she was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Ortega, a legal permanent resident with a sixth-grade education and a mother of four children, mistakenly thought she was stating “resident” when she answered she was a citizen on the forms.

Earlier this month, Dallas police arrested Miguel Hernandez, 27. He was charged with felony illegal voting amid allegations he forged a woman’s signature on an absentee ballot after he agreed to deliver it to election officials for her.

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

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