Friday, September 12, 2014

Texas Voter ID Law on Trial in U.S. Court

      Update: Wisconsin will be allowed to put its voter ID law into effect for the November elections following an interim ruling by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday [Sept. 12]. The panel of three Republican-appointed judges Frank Easterbrook, Diane Sykes, and John Tinder lifted a ruling by a lower court judge that found the law racially discriminatory in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the federal Voting Rights Act. The unsigned order said “the state’s probability of success” was “sufficiently great” to allow the state to implement the law pending a final decision on its appeal.   
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      The law has long recognized the common-sense assumption that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of one’s actions. So, in law and in common sense, Texas legislators must have intended to make it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote when they passed the nation’s most stringent voter ID law three years ago.
     However self-evident that proposition may be, lawyers for civil rights groups, the U.S. government, and the state of Texas have spent much of the past two weeks arguing about it in a federal court in Corpus Christi. The trial, expected to conclude with final arguments later this month, is perhaps most critical test of the federal Voting Rights Act since the Supreme Court’s decision one year ago to remove the law’s most powerful enforcement provision.
     Before the decision, Texas was one of the half a dozen Deep South states subject to a requirement to “preclear” any changes in election law with the Justice Department or a federal court based on the state’s past history of voting discrimination. The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) struck that provision — known as section 5 — on the ground that it was out of date. As a result, civil rights groups or the federal government now can challenge voting changes that disadvantage minority voters only under the act’s nationwide provision, section 2, which requires proof of intentional discrimination.
     Before Shelby County, a federal court in Washington had refused to allow Texas’ voter ID law to go into effect. After the Supreme Court decision, Gov. Rick Perry immediately moved to put the law into effect. Civil rights groups then joined with the Obama administration in filing suit to block the law under the Voting Rights Act’s section 2.
     The plaintiffs’ case against the law consists of evidence both anecdotal and statistical showing that the voter ID requirement could disenfranchise up to 1.2 million eligible Texas voters, with a far greater impact on African Americans and Latinos than on white voters. The statistics convincingly show the disproportionate impact on minorities. Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard, said an examination of state data bases indicated that 12 percent of blacks and 9 percent of Latinos lack the kinds of ID needed to satisfy the law and only 4 percent of whites.
     More compelling are the individual accounts from would-be minority voters forced to go through bureaucratic hoops to try to comply with the law. Lead-off witnesses when the trial began on Sept. 2 were two elderly African Americans, both old enough to remember the era of overt racial discrimination in voting in the South.
     Sammie Bates, a 74-year-old grandmother, recalled helping her grandmother count out the money needed to pay the $2 poll tax in her native Mississippi. Under the Texas law, Bates had to spend far more —  $42 to get a copy of her birth certificate as needed to obtain an election ID because she had no other government-issued photo identification.
     Floyd Carrier, an 83-year-old veteran, testified that he tried to vote in November 2013 by presenting an expired driver’s license, a VA card, and his previous voter registration card. Poll workers recognized him, but refused to let him vote because none of those IDs satisfied the law. He went on to pay for $24 for a birth certificate, but it came back with mistakes.
     In theory, the law seems to give Texans ample opportunities to prove their identity in order to vote. Government-issued photo IDs that satisfy the law include a valid Texas driver’s license or state-issued ID card or a U.S. passport, military ID, or citizenship certificate.
     Tellingly, the legislature also allowed a concealed handgun permit to satisfy the law, but not a student or government-worker ID. Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University in Washington, cited those and other provisions as showing that legislators deliberately made it easier in practice for whites and harder for minorities to satisfy the law based on data readily available to them at the time.
     Without any of the specified IDs, the would-be voter needs a birth certificate to get the special election ID. Discrepancies on the birth certificate may be disqualifying, and in any event the would-be voter — with no driver’s license — has to travel to a Department of Public Safety office to get the election ID. Legislators representing African American and Latino districts testified about the problems their constituents have encountered trying to meet the requirements.
     For their part, state officials say they have tried to publicize the law’s requirements and to assist would-be voters in complying. But evidence showed that the state has spent only $400,000 in that effort and to date has issued only 266 election IDs.
     Texas is only one of seven states defending voter ID laws in federal courts. Two other cases are further along. A federal district court struck down Wisconsin’s law; the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments today [Sept. 12] in the state’s appeal. The lower court upheld North Carolina’s law; the Fourth Circuit is expediting the plaintiffs’ appeal.
     In the Texas case, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, is scheduled to hear final arguments from the lawyers on Sept. 22. She has not indicated when she is likely to rule.

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