Federal court strikes down Texas' voter ID law, orders fix before November

A federal appeals court ruled that Texas' voter ID law discriminated against minorities and the poor and must be changed before November's election. 

Seth Wenig/ AP
James Percella, 2, holds his mother's hand as she steps into a voting booth in Hoboken, N.J., Tuesday, June 7, 2016. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled against Texas' voter ID laws, finding that they discriminate against minorities and the poor.

Texas' voter identification law, considered the strictest in the nation, was struck down Wednesday in a federal appeals court that ruled it discriminated against minorities and the poor. The court ruled it must be changed before the November elections.

Voter ID laws have sparked a national political dispute, with Republicans often arguing that they serve as safeguards against voter impersonation and Democrats saying they discriminate against minorities, especially African-Americans, and the poor, groups who more frequently lack the required types of ID or say they face more difficulties obtaining them.  

Then-Governor Rick Perry (R) signed the law in 2011, and it had been in effect for the previous three elections. A lower court is now tasked with finding a way to accommodate voters who do not have any of the seven currently-accepted forms of ID before the November elections.

"It's a great day for civil rights across America, and it's a critically important achievement for voters throughout Texas who have as of late been routinely mistreated by state leaders," said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who argued on behalf of Democrats and the minority-rights groups who opposed the law. 

The Obama Administration's Department of Justice traveled to Texas to argue the case, and hailed it as a victory for minority voters in Texas. 

The existing law accepts Texas drivers licenses, free state election ID cards, concealed handgun permits, military ID cards, citizenship certificates with photos, passports, or personal ID cards.

Election experts have testified that black residents are three times less likely than white residents to have those types of ID, and Hispanic residents are twice as likely as white residents to lack them. A total of more than 600,000 Texans lacked proper ID, or nearly 5 percent of all registered voters, a lower court found. 

Last year, a three-judge panel ruled that Texas' rule violated the Voting Rights Act, but the state appealed the decision. Texas has argued that free state election ID cards make it reasonably easy for people to access proper ID; that challengers have not proven a link between the law and decreased voter turnout; and that the law is meant to prevent voter fraud. 

"It is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement after Wednesday's ruling. 

More than 30 states require identification at the polls, but nine, in particular, including Texas, had particularly restrictive ID laws. Earlier this week, a federal judge blocked a similar law in Wisconsin, saying that it would still be unduly difficult for many voters to acquire the state's free voter identification card.

Although proponents of such voter ID laws defend them as necessary protections against voter fraud, many statistics suggest that the requirements are "an unnecessary solution to an invented problem that has had no discernible effect," The Christian Science Monitor reported in April. 

"Leaders of the other party are against efforts to crack down on voter fraud," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in March, protesting President Obama's criticism of the law. "The fact is that voter fraud is rampant. In Texas, unlike some other states and unlike some other leaders, we are committed to cracking down on voter fraud."

In 2015, however, fact-checking website Politifact found that in-person voting fraud in Texas was less common than lightning strikes. Other studies have found similarly low numbers for credible cases of voter fraud. For example, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, found only 31 credible voter impersonation allegations on out of 1 billion votes cast in the United States since 2000. He only looked into cases the ID laws would address, not fraud in absentee ballots, vote buying, voting from the wrong address, and other possible voter deceptions. 

But any have also challenged some Democrats' assertions that voter ID laws are discriminatory. In North Carolina, where a federal appeals court is considering its recent changes to voting rules, federal district judge Thomas Schroeder in North Carolina previously upheld the laws, ruling there wasn't enough evidence to determine whether it disenfranchised minorities and the poor. 

Both sides use the debate over voter ID laws to their advantage, some analysts say. But neither one is necessarily effective at achieving political gains through the debate.  

"Even if this law is passed with discriminatory intent … that doesn't actually mean that it's going to have a very significant effect on turnout," Steven Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State, told the Monitor in April. "That doesn’t make [North Carolina's ruling] right, but, let's put it this way: The impact [of the law] is less than the doom-saying prophecies of Democrats, and it's less than the Republicans who wanted to use it to suppress Democratic minority voters."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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