By Daryl Hannah
Texas voters will not need to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot this November, thanks to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who likened the newly proposed requirement to a poll tax deliberately meant to suppress Black and Latino voter turnout.
In a nearly 150-page decision, Gonzales Ramos struck down the state’s three-year-old law, which has been deemed the nation’s harshest, citing its disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters.
“[The law] creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose,” she wrote in her decision. “Proponents of [the law] within the 82nd Texas Legislature were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate.”
Gonzales Ramos later filed a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law.
Opponents slammed the law because it meant that college-student IDs wouldn’t be accepted by poll workers, but concealed handgun licenses would. It also meant that as many as 600,000 mostly Black and Latino voters would not be eligible to vote because they lacked an eligible photo ID. Texas did offer free voter IDs to anyone who presented a Texas birth certificate, but the Justice Department argued that the $3 fee to obtain a birth certificate and the travel to get those documents placed an undue burden on poor voters. As a result, the state has only issued 300 free voter IDs in the three years since the law took effect.
“We are extremely heartened by the court’s decision, which affirms our position that the Texas voter-identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “Even after the Voting Rights Act was seriously eroded last year, we vowed to continue enforcing the remaining portions of that statute as aggressively as possible. This ruling is an important vindication of those efforts.”
Texas was released from federal preclearance requirements after the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act last summer. Along with 22 other states, Texas quickly enacted restrictive voting-rights laws to limit access to the ballot.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has vowed to appeal, but agreed that the state may hold midterm elections under rules that predate the voter-ID law.
“The court today effectively ruled that racial discrimination simply cannot spread to the ballot box,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The Texas decision wasn’t the only recent victory for voting-rights advocates. Just hours before, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision and blocked Wisconsin’s photo-ID law from taking effect in the November election, citing similar discrimination concerns.
According to the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Advancement Project, the two lead plaintiffs in the case, Wisconsin’s new voting laws would disenfranchise as many as 300,000 voters, most of whom are people of color, elderly or people with disabilities.
Late last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a one-page order that vacated the appeals court ruling pending further proceedings. Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the application should have been denied because there was no indication that the Seventh Circuit had demonstrably erred.
“I believe the voter-ID law is constitutional, and nothing in the Court’s order suggests otherwise,” Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement. “We will be exploring alternatives to address the court’s concern and have voter-ID on Election Day.”
The Texas and Wisconsin rulings are a shift in the recent court battles over voting-rights laws. Most recently, restrictive voting-rights laws were upheld in Georgia and Indiana. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina could eliminate same-day voting, overturning a lower court’s decision. SCOTUS also ruled that Ohio could cut the early-voting window, evening hours and Sunday voting.
Despite these setbacks, the Justice Department remains steadfast in its effort to extend voting rights. Said Holder: “This department will never yield in its commitment to protecting that most sacred of Americans’ rights—the right to vote.”