A sharply divided federal appeals court on Wednesday ordered changes to Texas’ voter identification law, finding the state violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because the 2011 law has a discriminatory impact on minority voters.
The 9-6 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit requires a quick change to voter identification rules for the 2016 elections, although the exact changes are yet to be determined. The ruling could also set up a quick appeal to the Supreme Court, which would make it the first major election law case the justices could consider ahead of the November elections.
Early voting in the Lone Star State begins Oct. 24.
The 5th Circuit stopped short of striking down the whole law. It ordered a lower court judge to implement a remedy for the discriminatory effect with as little disruption as possible, “while respecting the legislature’s stated objective to safeguard the integrity of elections by requiring more secure forms of voter identification.”
“Today, is a great day for all Texas voters!” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a written statement. “The most restrictive and discriminatory Republican voter ID law in [the] country has been struck down.”
The opinion written by Judge Catharina Haynes, a George W. Bush appointee, upheld a ruling from a district court judge who found that the law disproportionately affects minorities and the poor.
For example, an expert for the voters challenging the law, SB 14, found Hispanic voters were about two times more likely and blacks were three times more likely than white voters to lack an ID that fulfills requirements of the law.
The lower court found 608,470 voters, or 4.5 percent of all registered voters in Texas, did not have a voter ID. Of those, there were 534,512 who did not fall under any exemption to the law, the so-called “No-Match List.”
Individual voters testified that they faced burdens to get an ID or to vote, such as poor implementation of the program by Texas, the cost of the underlying documents, difficulties with birth certificates from out of state or that have errors, or long distances to get to an office to obtain an ID.
The majority opinion did not find that the law was passed with discriminatory intent. But in a footnote, the majority faulted the way Texas lawmakers wrote the law.
“We cannot ignore that in passing SB 14, the Legislature carefully selected the types of IDs that would be required to vote,” the majority wrote. “In doing so, the Legislature selected IDs that minorities disproportionately do not possess and excluded IDs that minorities possess in greater numbers, without providing sufficient justification for those choices.”
The Texas attorney general’s office said the seven acceptable forms of photo ID were: a Texas driver’s license, free Texas election identification certificate (known as an EIC), Texas personal ID card, Texas license to carry a concealed handgun, U.S. military ID card, U.S. citizenship certificate and a U.S. passport.
“It is imperative that the state government safeguards our elections and ensures the integrity of our democratic process,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement responding to the ruling. “Preventing voter fraud is essential to accurately reflecting the will of Texas voters during elections, and it is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety.”
The dissent was biting, calling the majority “ill-conceived, misguided, and unsupported,” for finding racial bias by the Texas Legislature in an opinion that “fans the flames of perniciously irresponsible racial name-calling.”
“Indeed, why would a racially biased legislature have provided for a cost-free election ID card to assist poor registered voters — of all races — who might not have drivers’ licenses?” the dissent states. “Yet the majority emulates the clever capacity of Area 51 alien enthusiasts who, lacking any real evidence, espied a vast but clandestine government conspiracy to conceal the ‘truth.’”