Supreme Court declines to hear appeal of Texan voter ID law, one of the nation's strictest

The Court's refusal to hear the appeal lets stand a lower court's 2016 decision that the statute violated federal laws against voter discrimination. 

Eric Gay/ AP
An election official checks a voter's photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas, in February 2014.

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear a case involving a Texas voter identification law, after it was struck down in a lower court for disproportionately impacting black and Hispanic voters.

In recent years, voter ID laws have come under fire in states across the nation. Many say the measures place an undue burden on minorities and the poor, who are less likely to have approved forms of government ID or the necessary paperwork or transportation to acquire a voter ID card. The laws' backers, usually Republican politicians, often argue that they prevent against voter fraud, but there is little evidence that the alleged phenomenon is widespread in local or national elections.

Courts have recently struck down a number of partisan measures meant to toughen voter identification requirements, citing concern about minority communities' voting rights. Increasingly, plaintiffs are bringing hard data to the courtroom, allowing judges to see who might be impacted by measures that can seem minor, but may carry major implications for certain demographics.

“What [courts] are trying to do is ask whether the state is changing things to make it harder for a population to vote relative to some baseline of difficulty to vote,” Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago, previously told The Christian Science Monitor. “That’s all about the proof and evidence that lawyers are able to put into the record. You have to look at who votes, how, and how it impacts certain voters.”

By denying the appeal from Texas, the Supreme Court let a 2016 decision from the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals stand. That court ruled that a 2011 state statute violated federal law meant to prevent discrimination in the voting process.

The law, which was deemed one of the strictest in the nation, required voters to show one of seven forms of accepted identification. Concealed handgun licenses and military identification cards, for example, were allowed, while college identification cards were not. Testimony in the lower court revealed that Hispanic voters were twice as likely as white voters to lack the identification, while black voters were three times as likely.

Advocates against the Texas law, who praised the court's decision, estimate that some 600,000 people could have been barred from voting in the general election had the appeals court not ruled to block the law.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court has declined to hear this case, leaving intact an appeals court ruling that found the law to have a discriminatory effect on minority voters,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, according to the Supreme Court News service. “The Texas photo ID law burdens the rights of hundreds of thousands of voters and would-be voters, and restrictions like this should have no place in our democracy today.”

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the case is involved in continuing litigation in lower courts. He said the court could choose to hear an appeal at a later date.

Although defenders of voter ID laws cite concerns over voter fraud, there is little evidence to suggest that in-person fraud is a widespread problem. In 2015, Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey told ABC that “you're more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas” than find voter fraud. An investigation of the claim by Politifact found it to be true: there's a roughly 1 in 1.35 million chance of being struck by lightning in Texas, but a 1 in 18 million chance of in-person voter fraud.

“Today the Supreme Court took a big step toward ensuring that all Texans will have the opportunity to vote in future elections,” Amy L. Rudd of Dechert LLP, pro bono counsel for the NAACP Texas State Conference and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, told the Supreme Court News service. “By declining to hear Texas’s case, they came down on the side of protecting this most fundamental right.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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