Federal Appeals Court Finds Texas Voter ID Law Is Discriminatory

Jul 20, 2016

Texas’ voter identification law violates the U.S. law prohibiting racial discrimination in elections, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday. 

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed previous rulings that the 2011 voter ID law — which stipulates the types of photo identification election officials can and cannot accept at the polls — does not comply with the Voting Rights Act.

The full court's ruling delivered the strongest blow yet to what is widely viewed as the nation’s strictest voter ID law. Under the law, most citizens (some, like people with disabilities, can be exempt) must show one of a handful of types of identification before their ballots can be counted: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. 

Texas is among nine states categorized as requiring "strict photo ID," and its list of acceptable forms is the shortest. 

Texas’ losing streak continued in its efforts to defend its law, fighting challenges from the U.S. Department of Justice, minority groups and voting rights advocates. Wednesday's ruling did not immediately halt the voter ID law, which has been in effect since 2013. The judges kicked that decision back to a lower court.

Experts have closely watched the case, calling it one of two such battles that the U.S. Supreme Court could ultimately settle — helping to determine the point that states — which assert they are protecting the integrity of elections — cross over into disenfranchisement.

The 5th Circuit is considered one of the country’s most conservative appellate courts, with 1o of its members having been appointed by Republican presidents. 

The case centered on whether Texas intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and African-American voters when it passed the legislation: Senate Bill 14.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other proponents argued that the law was needed to bolster security at the ballot box by preventing voter fraud, but opponents cite the paucity of proven in-person voter fraud in the state and argue the intent was to undercut the electoral strength of the state’s growing minority population — people less likely to have photo identification or the means to obtain an election certificate.

Experts have testified that more than 600,000 Texans lack such identification, though not all of them have necessarily tried to vote. Those citizens can obtain “election identification certificates” free of charge, but only if they are able to produce a copy of their birth certificate.

Texas argued that opponents of the law "had failed to identify the plaintiffs have failed to identify a single individual who faces a substantial obstacle to voting because of SB 14." In Wednesday's ruling, the majority rejected that argument. 

"For one thing, the district court found that multiple Plaintiffs were turned away when they attempted to vote, and some of those Plaintiffs were not offered provisional ballots to attempt to resolve the issue," the ruling stated.

The majority also affirmed the lower court's finding that  Texas' "lackluster educational efforts resulted in additional burdens on Texas voters."

Gov. Rick Perry signed the law in 2011, kickstarting its convoluted journey through the federal court system.

Early legal challenges put the rules on hold until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer automatically needed federal pre-clearance when changing election laws.

In August 2015, a three-judge 5th Circuit panel ruled that the law did have a “discriminatory effect,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act, although it did not constitute a poll tax as a lower court had ruled.

Wednesday's ruling affirmed those findings, and sends the case back to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. 

"The district court’s lengthy opinion goes through the evidence supporting its findings in great detail," according to the majority opinion on the discrimination finding. "A few examples show that the district court relied on concrete evidence regarding the excessive burdens faced by Plaintiffs in making its findings."

After each loss, Texas has appealed. Through April, Paxton’s office had spent more than $3.5 million defending the law in several lawsuits, its records show. 

This story was produced by the Texas Tribune.

Read the Court's full decision below.