Did Texas Lawmakers Deliberately Pass a Racist Voter ID Law?

Did Texas Lawmakers Deliberately Pass a Racist Voter ID Law?
Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr creative commons
This week the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Texas' appeal to save its embattled voter ID law, which lower courts have said carries an “impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African Americans" and blocked from going into effect last year. That means the battle over voter ID in Texas now heads back to a federal court in Corpus Christi, where lawyers for the state, civil rights groups, and the U.S. Department of Justice will argue whether or not Texas lawmakers knew they were passing a racist law.

On that point (lawmakers' so-called "legislative intent"), U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos was surprisingly blunt in her October 2014 ruling following a trial over the law, known as SB 14. The bill, which established strict requirements for what ID you must have to vote in Texas, included things like a driver's license or a passport or a concealed handgun license but it left out things like student IDs.

As Ramos wrote in her scorched-earth ruling (emphasis in original): "This Court concludes that the evidence in the record demonstrates that proponents of SB 14 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." She also cited the "relative scarcity of incidents of in-person voter impersonation fraud, the fact that SB 14 addresses no other type of voter fraud, the anti-immigration and anti-Hispanic sentiment permeating the 2011 legislative session, and the legislators' knowledge that SB 14 would clearly impact minorities disproportionately and likely disenfranchise them" — all of that, she says, shows that SB 14 was "racially motivated."

When the state appealed Ramos' ruling to the federal Fifth Circuit appeals court, even the most conservative appellate court in the country agreed the law was discriminatory — yet the judges couldn't agree on the whole "racially motivated" part. The Fifth Circuit cobbled together a patchwork ruling that essentially kicked the case back to Ramos' court to answer that lingering question — and to come up with a temporary voter ID solution for the November 8 election that confused a lot of people.

Some on the Fifth Circuit, like Judge Edith Jones (who herself has come under fire for past remarks about African Americans and Hispanics being “prone” to commit acts of violence) were fuming the court had even kept the question of discriminatory intent alive. Jones said the issue "fans the flames of perniciously irresponsible name-calling” before comparing the judges who disagree with her to “Area 51 alien enthusiasts who, lacking any real evidence, espied a vast but clandestine government conspiracy to conceal the truth.”

The parties were supposed to have a hearing on the issue today. But, in case you haven't heard, there was a yuge shakeup at the Department of Justice last week — which had previously argued alongside the voting and civil rights group plaintiffs in the case, saying there's evidence Texas intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

But as one of its first official orders of business, just hours after President Donald Trump's inauguration last Friday, the DOJ filed to postpone this week's voter ID law hearing. The reason, according to the court filing, is because the DOJ needs more time for the Trump administration to "brief the new leadership of the Department on this case and the issues to be addressed at that hearing before making any representations to the Court."

Chad Dunn, one of the Houston attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case, expects the Trump Administration will probably switch sides. "Whatever happens with DOJ, the private parties will continue the fight against the discriminatory voter ID law."

Dunn says the discriminatory intent issue is critical because, depending on how the courts rule, it could change how Texas is allowed to fiddle with its voting laws moving forward. Prior to 2013, when SCOTUS gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act, states with a "history of discrimination" (like Texas and basically the whole south) were required to go through a federal approval process before making changes to state voting or elections laws. Dunn says that if the plaintiffs can uphold Judge Ramos' ruling — that Texas lawmakers intentionally passed a discriminatory bill — Texas would still have to seek that kind of federal pre-clearance for voting or elections changes in the future.
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