Closings and delays

Texas voter ID law was designed to discriminate, judge rules

Voters line up to cast their ballots on March 1, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Discrimination was a “motivating factor”

A Texas law that requires voters to show ID before they can cast their ballots was designed to discriminate against minorities, a federal judge ruled Monday, marking the second time she has condemned the law’s intentions.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said the 2011 law has disproportionately impacted black and Latino voters — an outcome the Republican lawmakers who wrote it wanted, she wrote.

“A discriminatory purpose was at least one of the substantial or motivating factors behind passage,” Ramos wrote in her 10-page ruling, adding that the voter ID law — which is largely considered to be the toughest in the nation after a court struck down a similar North Carolina rule in July — violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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The Monday decision is the second time Ramos, appointed by former U.S. president Barack Obama, ruled against the law. She struck it down in 2014, writing that it “was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose” and made it more difficult for Latino and black voters to cast their ballots.

The state appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, which in July agreed with Ramos’s ruling that the voter law was unconstitutional. But the appeals judges asked her to reconsider the part of her decision that insisted the bill was written with the specific purpose to discriminate against minority voters — paving the way for her Monday reaffirmation.

After the appeals court upheld Ramos’s ruling, Texas appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in January, the high court declined to hear the case, allowing the decision against the law to stand.

Ramos’ Monday ruling comes a month after a separate court ruled that Republican lawmakers in Texas gerrymandered several congressional districts in 2011, specifically and illegally drawing district borders based on the races of residents.

A dozen years of controversy

The voter ID law was first proposed by Republican lawmakers in 2005, who argued it would prevent voter fraud by double-checking the identity of anyone who tried to cast a ballot. Under the legislation, each voter would need to provide one of seven types of ID — including driver’s licenses, passports, weapons permits, and special, state-provided voter ID cards — every time he or she went to the polls.

But Democratic lawmakers insisted the legislation would hurt poor and minority voters, who are less likely to have ID — and who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. While Republicans held a majority in both the state House and Senate, Democrats were able to block the bill three times. But by 2011, the GOP had a two-thirds majority, and conservative lawmakers finally passed it. Then-governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law that May.

It has remained in effect for the past six years, even as legal challenges mounted — although it was modified slightly ahead of the November presidential election. In August, the state and several groups advocating for minority voters struck a deal that softened the law by allowing anyone without an ID to vote so long as they signed an affidavit declaring that they were unable to obtain the required identification documents. Any voter who possessed proper ID was still required to show it.

But the state’s ID law did not stop improper voting. In November, at least 500 people were able to vote in Texas without showing an ID by signing an affidavit — even though they indicated they had identification.

The possibility of preclearance

Ramos’s ruling against the 2011 voter ID law could pave the way for the state to be stripped of its rights to change election laws without federal approval.

Under the Voting Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination at the polling place and, among other things, outlawed literacy tests and other ploys that historically targeted minority voters — states with a history of racial discrimination must get permission from the Justice Department before they can change their voting laws. The 1965 law outlined a formula, which included states’ histories of discrimination devices, to determine which states needed so-called preclearance.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that detailed that formula — but it kept the part of the law that describes pre-clearance intact. Essentially, it’s still legal for the Justice Department to require states to get federal approval before changing election laws, but there’s no set way to determine which states should be subjected to it.

The Monday ruling states that Texas implemented discrimination election laws, but since the Voting Rights Act formula was overturned, there’s little precedent for what constitutes a history of racial discrimination. Deputies of Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton acknowledged that Texas could be subjected to preclearance following the ruling — but said even they are not certain.

“It’s possible. It’s our belief that you’d have to have multiple instances of discriminatory purpose,” Brantley Starr, a deputy first assistant attorney general, said.

Despite the uncertain future of preclearance in Texas, civil rights advocates lauded Ramos’s decision.

“This is a good ruling that confirms what we have long known, that Texas’ voter ID law stands as one of the most discriminatory voting restrictions of its kind,” Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said.