USA Justice First Look

White House drops Obama-era discrimination claim against Texas voter ID law

The Trump administration is dropping a claim against a Texas voter ID law, one of the nation's strictest. A federal appeals court has ordered the state to fix the law's discriminatory effects.

A huge flag reading 'Vote!' waves above a highway in San Antonio on the day of the 2016 general election.
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The Trump administration has dropped a discrimination claim against a controversial Texas voter ID law, marking a shift from former President Barack Obama’s administration, which sought to challenge the measure, deemed one of the country's strictest voting requirements.

Voting legislation has become a hot topic of debate both politically and in the courtroom, as voting rights advocates seek to protect or expand access to the ballot and courts generally follow suit in their decisions. Backers of voter ID laws, usually Republicans, argue that they provide necessary checks on voter fraud, but researchers have found scant evidence that widespread voter fraud has taken place. Those challenging the laws argue that they place an undue burden on minority voters, who often lack access to forms of accepted identification listed in the laws and tend to lean Democratic. 

By dropping the claim challenge the Texas law, President Trump’s administration has reversed the stance taken in 2013 by the White House, when the Obama administration joined a lawsuit against the state. The Justice Department is dropping the claim because the Texas legislature is considering changes to "cure the deficiencies" in the law, according to a draft of a court filing that the department sent to the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.

"It's a complete 360," Danielle Lang, the Campaign Legal Center’s deputy director of voting rights, told the Associated Press. "We can't make heads or tails of any factual reason for the change. There has been no new evidence that's come to light."

The law required voters to present one of seven accepted identification forms, including a driver’s license or concealed handgun license. Court testimony later revealed that Hispanic voters were twice as likely as white voters to lack one of the identification methods, while black voters were three times as likely.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that the law disproportionately impacted minorities and those living in poverty, and ordered the state to implement changes before November’s election. Last month, the US Supreme Court denied to hear Texas's appeal

By August, the law was altered to allow people without a driver's license or photo ID to sign an affidavit stating that they are unable to obtain the required identification.

The withdrawal comes after the Justice Department joined the state’s attorney general to seek a delay in the case. A US District judge denied that request.

While the Justice Department may be turning away from the fight against voter ID laws, courts have generally sought to protect minority voter access to the ballot. Federal courts have struck down a slew of GOP-backed voter ID laws recently, after more plaintiffs brought hard data before the court, showing who was most impacted by the legislation.

Deemed one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws, the Texas measure could have barred some 600,000 residents from voting in the general election had the appeals court not blocked it, voting rights advocates estimate.

The law is likely one of several measures that will see continued litigation in the courts. While Mr. Trump has backed down somewhat from claims of widespread voter fraud in the presidential election, and the White House has said that the previously promised investigation is no longer a priority, litigation surrounding ID laws is on the rise.

Voting litigation is increasing, not decreasing,” Ned Foley, an election law professor at The Ohio State University, told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month. “The main impression … is that when a law looks like it’s engaging in outright disenfranchisement of a valid voter, even conservative judges have been stopping that. [But] the judiciary is more tolerant with state legislatures adjusting issues of convenience and accessibility, if the adjustment is not outright disenfranchisement.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.