On Saturday, the Supreme Court decided to let Texas enforce its strict two-year-old voter ID law, which a district court judge struck down as grossly discriminatory this month, but that ruling was temporarily put on hold by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Got that? No?
Then let us 'splain: You have to bring what the law calls proper identification -- assuming you have some -- to cast your vote this election because otherwise the Supreme Court says you might be confused and just show up to vote the way Texans have always done. You see, apparently it's better to let a new discriminatory law possibly disenfranchise a large number of voters -- 600,000 by one count -- than lay the heavy burden on voters who mistakenly bring identification to the polls when they needn't have bothered.
Whew! Thank you, Supreme Court, for clearing that up.
Of course, the Supreme Court didn't actually say this, since it didn't give a reason for its decision, but the general consensus seems to be that justices figured it would be confusing to make a major overhaul to the law so close to the election. And if you aren't buying that, you're not alone.
"The thinking was that issuing a decision this close to the election would disrupt the status quo in a way that would be a detriment to the state," says Lynne Rambo, a professor of constitutional law at Texas A&M law school. "It's not a theory I buy."
It's not a theory at least three justices buy, either. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor each dissented the decision. And ample evidence backs up the district court's original argument that requiring an ID at the polls would disproportionately advantage white, wealthier voters: The NAACP also notes that 25 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics nationwide don't have a valid government-issued ID.
"The status quo they're trying to maintain is that SB 14 [requiring voter IDs in Texas] went into effect at the beginning of 2012. Are there people that are going to be hurt by holding out the implementation of SB 14? It's extremely hard to imagine that there are," Rambo says.
"Theoretically those who enacted the law, they're claiming that there's some kind of harm that they would suffer by not having this law. They claim that it is necessary to prevent voter fraud," she says. "It's difficult for me because the district court found that there had been only two cases of voter fraud in 10 years. So it's hard for me to take seriously that claim."
Rambo estimates that the dispute over the law will be continued after the midterms. "There are other things you have to consider. For one, the state presumably has to train voting officials how to recognize voter IDs," she says, pointing out the validity of arguing that changes to election procedure could be confusing.
"From a legal standpoint it's not completely outrageous," Rambo points out, though, that the legal argument does not necessarily outweigh the ethical argument. "It's wrong, but it's not wholly without basis -- let's put it that way."