Election Law

5th Circuit blocks Texas voter ID law as violation of the Voting Rights Act

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hand putting ballot inside ballot box

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has again struck down Texas’s controversial voter ID law, according to the Dallas Morning News.

The en banc ruling affirms a panel ruling issued in August of 2015, which found the law disproportionately harms Latino and African American Texans’ ability to vote. That violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which forbids practices that result in denying equal voting opportunities, even if they don’t expressly discriminate.

Though the intent of the law was not expressly discriminatory, the full 5th Circuit noted that “neutral reasons can and do mask racial intent.” In this case, wrote Judge Catharina Haynes (PDF), the record shows that the proponents of Texas’s SB 14 were aware of the likely disparate impact of the bill and that the bill was only tenuously connected to voter fraud.

“One might expect that when the Legislature places a bill on an expedited schedule and subjects it to such an extraordinary degree of procedural irregularities, as was the case with SB 14, such a bill would address a problem of great magnitude,” Haynes wrote for the majority. “But the evidence before the Legislature was that in-person voting… yielded only two convictions… out of 20 million votes cast in the decade leading up to SB 14’s passage.”

The decision in Veasey v. Abbott upholds a Corpus Christi trial court’s decision that SB 14 violates the Voting Rights Act, but rejects its finding that the law constitutes a poll tax. It also vacates the trial court’s finding that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, since it didn’t reach those issues. That trial court is ordered to find a remedy that eliminates the violations of the Voting Rights Act but disrupts voting in the November election as little as possible.

The case was a controversial one within the 5th Circuit, with one concurrence and three partial dissents. The dissent by Judge Edith Jones, joined by four others, said the requirement to show a photo ID is reasonable and that the majority, by ascribing unspoken racial motivations to the law, “fans the flames of perniciously irresponsible racial name-calling.”

“No one doubts our unwavering duty to enforce antidiscrimination law,” Jones wrote. “But in this media-driven and hyperbolic era, the discharge of that duty requires the courage to distinguish between invidious motivation and shadows.”

Veasey took a convoluted route through the lower courts. SB 14 was originally enacted in 2011, but lost a challenge by the Brennan Center for Justice, among others, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that section of the Act in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, Texas implemented its law and opponents challenged it under Section 2 instead.

In October of 2014, District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos struck down SB 14, although the 5th Circuit quickly stayed enforcement, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that. In the summer of 2015, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit affirmed Ramos’s decision as to Section 2. The state of Texas asked for en banc review, resulting in Wednesday’s decision.

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