AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Texas lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday to reform a discriminatory voter ID law, but even if it’s signed by the governor, judges might force the state to get approval for new election rules from the federal government.
Calling Senate Bill 5 an “emergency matter” Gov. Greg Abbott told the Texas Legislature on Sunday to schedule a vote on the bill that breezed through the state Senate on a 21-10 vote in March before bogging down in the House.
The House passed SB5 on a 95-54 vote on Tuesday, six days before the Legislature’s regular session is set to adjourn, making it likely to be signed into law by Abbott.
SB5 codifies several interim changes to the voter ID law which U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ordered Texas to implement for the November election, after an en banc Fifth Circuit ruled this past July that the state’s current law, Senate Bill 14, discriminates against black and Hispanic voters because they are less likely to have SB 14 identification.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has stated in court filings he believes SB5’s passage will moot the Fifth Circuit’s concerns that SB14 disenfranchises minorities.
But Danielle Lang with the Campaign Legal Center – a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington that represented the plaintiffs who successfully challenged SB14 in court – Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and others told Courthouse News it’s up to Gonzales Ramos whether to put Texas’ election-law changes back under federal oversight.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the Voting Rights Act Section 5 requirements that states and counties with a history of discrimination get approval for any voting-law changes from the federal government – giving Texas leave to implement SB 14.
That decision led resourceful attorneys to seize on another section of the Voting Rights Act that puts the power to crack down on wayward states into federal judges’ hands.
Under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, federal judges can make a state or county get permission from the feds before new election laws take effect.
Mirroring the interim rules Gonzales Ramos put in place for the November elections, SB5 would let voters without acceptable photo ID bring a government document with their name and address on it, a current utility bill, a bank statement, a government check, a paycheck or a certified copy of their birth certificate, and sign a “reasonable impediment declaration” stating why they couldn’t get identification.
The affidavit lists lack of transportation, no birth certificate, work schedule, disability, illness, family responsibility or lost or stolen ID as acceptable excuses.
In the version of SB5 the House took up on Tuesday, voters found to have intentionally lied on the declaration could be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, told a state Senate committee in March he supports the changes.
“There is no question that SB5 is a marked improvement over SB 14,” Rodriguez said of the new bill, proposed by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
Rodriguez characterized the punitive measure for mistakes in filling out the affidavit as overkill because he believes it will intimidate some eligible voters from trying to vote.
He found a hometown ally in state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who pushed through an amendment Tuesday that would reduce the penalty to a Class A misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail, the Texas Tribune reported.
Moody’s amendment was one of seven added Tuesday to the bill, which must return to the state Senate to hash out the changes before it hits Abbott’s desk
Rodriguez and House Democrats failed in their efforts amend SB5 to include photo identification issued government agencies, U.S. military veterans’ benefits cards, Native American tribal IDs and college student IDs on the accepted list.
Gonzales Ramos ruled in April that Texas had intentionally crafted SB14 to suppress the votes of minorities, who typically vote for Democrats. The April ruling tracked a 2014 order in which she blocked the law with an injunction, explaining in a 142-page decision that SB14 “will disproportionately impact low-income Texans” who are less likely to have the needed ID.
Since many poor Texans are minorities, she reasoned, the law is discriminatory.
She set a June 7 status conference in the case. Lang said she expects the judge to decide at that hearing or shortly thereafter whether to place Texas’ election rules back under the watch of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lang said Gonzales Ramos has broad discretion on the standards she could impose on Texas.
“She could order preclearance of all voting restrictions or she could limit it to things similar to Texas voter ID. For example, anything having to do with eligibility requirements,” Lang said in a phone interview.
Lang said the interim rules Gonzales Ramos approved for the November elections, which the Texas Legislature rolled into SB5, only addressed the Fifth Circuit’s concerns with SB14’s discriminatory impact – not her April finding on intent.
So Gonzales Ramos could order federal oversight even if SB5 becomes law, Lang said.
“The Fifth Circuit said that intent rulings usually require different and broader remedies,” Lang said. “So I think the court has a lot of unanswered questions about what the final remedy should be. But there’s no reason to assume SB5, even if it exactly mirrored the interim remedy, which it doesn’t, would be sufficient.”
In a related case, a three-judge panel ruled this spring that the Texas Legislature in 2011, the same year it passed the embattled voter ID law, gerrymandered several congressional and state districts to neutralize the growing number of Democratic-leaning Latino voters in the state.
In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling Monday in Cooper v. Harris, where the high court struck down North Carolina’s congressional map and found its lawmakers gerrymandered two districts to dilute the votes of black people, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez on Monday ordered Texas and its opponents in the redistricting battle to submit supplemental briefs by June 6.
Rodriguez also urged the Texas Legislature to consider redrawing the state’s voting districts in a special summer session on account of the Cooper ruling.
Lang said Rodriguez and the two other federal judges presiding over the redistricting case could, like Gonzales Ramos, order Texas to clear election-law changes with the federal government.
The voter ID case is far from over, as Texas has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.