Take Two: Texas’s Voting ID Act is Challenged Again
A Texas voter identification law is back in the spotlight after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard arguments on whether the law is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against low income and minority voters.
The 2011 law requires voters to show photo identification (there are a few, limited exceptions) when voting in person. The law requires a voter to present one of the seven forms of approved photo ID when voting and the ID must be current or expired for no more than 60 days. Further, the name on the ID must be exactly the same or “substantially similar” to the registered voter name; otherwise the voter can only cast a provisional ballot and must return within six days of the election to further verify his/her identity. Voters without an acceptable photo ID can apply for an election identification certificate, but to obtain the certificate they must verify their identity with additional documents, which cost money. The current law affects more than 600,000 Texan voters who lack an approved ID.
Texas’s voter ID law is now one of the strictest in the country and part of a growing trend by states,
which proponents argue is necessary to prevent voter fraud. Currently, 32 states have voter identification laws in force. These include both photo ID (16 states) and non-photo ID (16 states), with a variety of requirements and limitations. Opponents, often Democratic leaning groups, argue that the laws target the poor, minorities, college students, and other groups who tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
In March 2012, the Department of Justice (DoJ) prevented the law from taking effect under the Voting Rights Act. Sections 4(b) and 5 of this 1965 law require “covered jurisdictions,” which includes Texas, to preclear any changes to their voting laws before they can go into effect. A covered state must prove the voting change does not have the purpose or effect of denying the right to vote based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The DoJ determined that Texas failed to show that the law would not have a discriminatory effect on Hispanics and other minorities or that there is a significant voter impersonation problem which the law seeks to correct. A unanimous three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court confirmed the department’s conclusions that Texas law violated the Voting Rights Act because it would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities.” In June 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s coverage formula (Section 4(b)), which made the preclearance requirement (Section 5) moot. As a result of Shelby County, the Supreme Court vacated the district court’s ruling, allowing the law to go into effect.
In August 2013, the DoJ sued Texas again, but this time argued that the Texas law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which applies to non-preclearance states and prevents the same discrimination as Section 5. On October 9, 2014, a district court judge agreed and found the law unconstitutional. The 147-page opinion states that the law “has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” The court further held that the law creates “an unconstitutional poll tax.” The Fifth Circuit, however, permitted the law to remain in effect, which the Supreme Court affirmed, due to the timing of an upcoming election.
The fate of the law is now with the Fifth Circuit, which will determine whether the law is discriminatory. Despite being among the most conservative circuits in the nation, it is likely the Fifth Circuit will uphold the lower court’s decision invalidating the law because the state presented little evidence showing the need for the law or disproving that the law was enacted for discriminatory reasons. In-person voter fraud is rare and there was little evidence showing requiring a photo ID would prevent this. In the ten years preceding the Texas law, during which 20 million votes were cast, only two people were convicted of in-person voter fraud. The state claimed the law would help prevent people from voting under deceased voters’ names, but failed to present any evidence showing this actually occurs. Further, mail-in voter fraud is more prevalent and the law allows individuals without a photo ID to vote this way.
During oral argument, the court criticized the state for relying on the fact that no smoking gun exists to prove the law was enacted with a discriminatory purpose. Judge Haynes, a Republican appointee, noted that requiring the plaintiff to provide a written or oral statement that says the law was enacted with the purpose to discriminate is unlikely and unrealistic. Rather, plaintiffs can prove discrimination with strong circumstantial evidence. The state argued that because there is no evidence minorities were unable to vote, the law was not discriminatory. However, if the law was enacted with a discriminatory purpose the number of people affected by it does not matter. It is still unconstitutional.
Finally, the underlying documents required to obtain the “free” election identification certificate have a cost and this creates a plausible argument that the state is establishing a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. The court did also discussed remanding the case back to the lower court for further consideration to look at the law in light of newly filed bills that would expand the acceptable forms of photo ID or to look at the last election, which was conducted under the law, to get an idea of the law’s impact.
Even though the current law’s future is uncertain, the Texas Legislature recently considered additional voting ID requirements. The proposed legislation, House Bill 1096 introduced by Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), would require the address on a voter’s ID to match their voter registration address. Rep. Murphy claims the measure will ensure that voters will reside and vote in the same precinct. Opponents of the law argue this is another measure to target and suppress poor, minority, elderly and disabled voters. The bill was approved by the House on May 8 and sent to the Senate for consideration. The Senate Committee on State Affairs held a public hearing on May 18, which included supporting testimony from the Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee and opposing testimony from the Texas NAACP and the Texas Democratic Party. The committee reported the bill favorably (voting 7-2) to the Senate. The bill was scheduled for a full Senate vote before the legislative session ended, but was ultimately never voted on and died.
When the Fifth Circuit rules on this matter, the decision should serve as a road map for the many other states who have changed or are planning to change their voting laws on the grounds of preventing fraud.
Amanda Hesse is from Princeton, New Jersey and graduated from American University with a dual major in Law & Society and Public Communication. She anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor in Spring 2016. During Summer 2015, Amanda will intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson, Mississippi, where she will focus on juvenile justice and prison conditions reform.