Texas Voter-ID Law Faces Key Test in 5th Cir.

     HOUSTON (CN) — Texas’ voter-identification law will be stripped down and prodded next week by 15 Fifth Circuit judges, who must decide if it discriminates against minorities and should be scrapped before November’s presidential election.
     Ten of the circuit court’s 15 active judges were nominated by Republican presidents. Experts say that’s a bad sign for opponents of SB 14.
     Intent on squelching the nebulous threat of voter fraud, the Texas Legislature passed the law in 2011.
     Before then, voters could cast ballots by presenting a voter registration card, utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or mail from a government agency. SB 14 requires voters to have one of seven forms of photo identification, one of which is a Texas license to carry a handgun. Notably absent from the list are student photo IDs.
     Opponents claim voter ID laws are a way for Republican-dominated states to disenfranchise minorities and poor people, who tend to vote Democratic. Voter-ID laws proliferated after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of discrimination to get election law changes approved by the federal government.
     Opponents of photo-ID laws say there is scant evidence of voter fraud.
     “In the ten years preceding SB 14, only two cases of in-person voter impersonation fraud were prosecuted to a conviction – a period of time in which 20 million votes were cast,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote in an October 2014 ruling. Gonzales Ramos found the law has a “discriminatory effect” on African-Americans and Latinos because they are less likely than whites to have the proper identification.
     Proponents of voter-ID laws claim statistics show that voter participation has not been suppressed in states that enact them. Indiana passed a Voter ID law in 2005.
     “A November 2007 study showed that overall voter turnout in Indiana increased by about 2 percentage points after the law went into effect. It also found no consistent evidence of lower turnout in counties with higher percentages of minority, poor, elderly, or less-educated populations,” Indiana’s Solicitor General Thomas Fisher wrote in an amicus brief to the Fifth Circuit endorsed by 14 other Republican-led states.
     The Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s law in 2008, in a 6-to-3 vote in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board.
     The Seventh Circuit found Wisconsin’s Voter ID law constitutional in 2015. Wisconsin’s version is more inclusive than Texas’ because it lets voters use student ID, an ID issued by a federally recognized Indian tribe or one from the Veteran’s Health Administration.
     The Texas challenge will turn on the en banc Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
     A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit unanimously agreed with Gonzales Ramos that SB 14 has a discriminatory effect on minority voter turnout, in violation of Section 2, and upheld her injunction against it in October 2014.
     But the order came so close to Election Day that to avoid voter confusion the Fifth Circuit reinstated the law with a stay that remains in effect today.
     Texas congressmen say in an amicus brief that the Fifth Circuit panel misinterpreted Section 2 by focusing on minority voter participation rather than minorities’ access to the polls. The brief is signed by 27 of the state’s 34 congressmen, including Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, all Republicans.
     They claim the Fifth Circuit panel’s Section 2 reading “converts a prohibition on abridging minority voters’ right to vote into a mandate for boosting minority voter turnout. It transforms a guarantee of equal opportunity into a guarantee of equal outcomes.”
     Continuing this line of thinking to all aspects of the voting process is untenable, the Texas delegation claims.
     “If (as the panel says) Section 2 really forbids all voting practices under which majority and minority voters participate at different rates, it would ‘swee[p] away almost all registration and voting rules’ — not just voter ID,” the brief states.
     “Indeed, the requirement of registration itself would be invalid if, hypothetically, someone could show that minority voters disproportionately find it difficult to assemble the documents that registration typically requires.” (Parentheses and brackets in brief.)
     A coalition of six Latino-advocacy groups countered, in their own amicus brief, that SB 14 is one more step in Texas’ long history of discriminating against Mexican-American voters.
     They say SB 14 falls under a 1982 congressional amendment to Section 2, expanding its scope to bar not just “purposeful discrimination,” but the “effects a voting law has on the opportunities of historically disenfranchised minority voters to participate in elections.”
     To qualify for a free Election Identification Certificate, Texans must present a birth certificate, naturalization certificate or passport to a Texas Department of Public Safety office.
     Though the Texas Legislature passed a law in 2015 that eliminated the $2 to $47 fee counties charged for searching for and printing birth certificates if the customer needed it for an election identification certificate, the Latino groups say that does not help immigrants who have lost their naturalization papers.
     “Latinos not born in the United States who become naturalized citizens face greater costs in obtaining supporting documentation for an EIC. Latinos born outside the United States cannot simply get a birth certificate; they must obtain a $345 naturalization certificate,” the brief states.
     Not only that, the groups say, rural areas along the U.S.-Mexico border with many Latino voters have just a handful of Department of Public Safety offices, and the few there are have limited hours.
     The limited hours for ID-issuing offices substantially burden Latino voters who, because of past and ongoing employment discrimination, disproportionately hold low-paying jobs, which often ‘do not include paid sick leave or other paid leave’ so ‘taking off from work means lost income,'” the brief states.
     The Fifth Circuit has until July 20 to issue an opinion on the merits, vacate the stay or modify it, a deadline imposed by the Supreme Court amid concerns that the circuit would delay a ruling until after Election Day, Nov. 8.
     Arguments are scheduled for Tuesday.

%d bloggers like this: