Legal Battles

Texas Voter ID Law Gets Last Local Vetting Before Heading to Bigger Things

The stakes, no matter who's argument you believe, are incredibly high. If you take the state of Texas' side, argued Tuesday in front of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, requiring specific, high-security photo identification from every voter in the state is essential to preventing widespread chaos and voter fraud, to keep the entire state from turning into Richard J. Daley's Chicago. If you believe the plaintiffs in the case, voter fraud of the type intended to be prevented by the law basically doesn't exist and minority voters are disproportionately affected by the types of ID the law requires they get. To advocates against the law, it is a nuisance and very little more. 

So far, Texas' voter ID law has been ruled unconstitutional twice, first by a U.S. District Court in Austin and then by the 5th Circuit itself. The state is back for its third bite at the apple, this time in front of all of the circuit's 15 judges rather than a three-judge panel. Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued Tuesday that if Texas' law is finally deemed invalid, voter ID laws across the country will be nullified — pointing to a 2008 Supreme Court decision that upheld Indiana's voter ID law.

Carl Stewart, a Bill Clinton appointee and chief judge of the 5th Circuit, questioned Keller's comparison.

"Am I missing something?" Stewart asked. "You mention Georgia, Indiana, Virginia, Wisconsin ... places where they offer infinitely more options to the voter ID law than Texas."

Texas offers the fewest choices of eligible ID for voters of any state that's seen its law challenged. Potential voters must provide one of seven items — a driver's license, state ID, concealed handgun permit, passport, U.S. citizenship certificate, military ID or special voter ID — in order to cast a ballot.

Janai Nelson, arguing on behalf of the NAACP, said that the law's requirements, drafted during what she described as a racially charged session of the Texas Legislature, disproportionately affect minority voters. Because black and Latino voters have less access to the resources required to obtain a photo ID — transportation and readily obtainable birth certificates — the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Marc Veasey, the U.S. House member who represents a gerrymandered strip of southern Tarrant and Dallas counties and is the lead plaintiff in the case, skewered the law Tuesday while announcing the formation of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus.

"[Texas' voter ID law is] the clearest manifestation of modern day suppression tactics," Veasey said. “They must be done away with immediately so that everyone can have full access to the ballot box."

After leaving the hearing in New Orleans, Keller told reporters that wasn't the case.

“The point of this law is to make sure that voter fraud isn’t occurring. It’s not to suppress voter turnout. Oftentimes in legislative battles, motives start to be attributed. In this case, they were by opponents, because they disagreed with the policy,” Keller said.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, writing an opinion that initially struck down the law in October 2014, noted that in the 10 years that preceded the identification requirement's becoming law, only two cases of in-person voter fraud were successfully prosecuted out of 20 million ballots cast. The law had a discriminatory effect on minority voters, she ruled, because they were statistically less likely to have the required ID.

The 5th Circuit is expected to issue a final ruling on the case in mid-July, after which it is expected to head to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, thanks to a stay issued earlier in the appeals process, voters need to keep bringing one of the seven accepted forms of ID to the polls.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young