The Austin Chronicle

Judge Throws Out Texas Voter ID Law

By Richard Whittaker, October 10, 2014, 11:48am, Newsdesk

The ruling is in. A Federal judge has found that Texas' voter ID law is "an unconstitutional poll tax [and] 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."

In a 147-page ruling, US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found that over 600,000 registered voters in Texas do not have the kind of photo id that Senate Bill 14 requires for them to exercise their democratic right, and those numbers include a disproportionate percentage of minorities and the elderly. Moreover, while she steered clear of ruling completely against the concept of photo voter ID, she found that the terms of the Texas rules were deliberately discriminatory.

Her ruling is the latest to reinforce a 2012 US Justice Department finding that the law violates the Voting Rights Act. It created a limited number of state-issued IDs that can be used at the ballot box, and added new rules about the name and photo being "substantially similar" to that on the election rolls. Critics have long contested that those changes make it alarmingly easy for legal voters to be blocked from voting, while doing little to stop the small number of in-person voter fraud cases that pop up.

While Ramos said there were no "smoking guns" to prove discriminatory intent, she noted that the Legislature was a racially charged environment in the 2011 session in which SB14 was passed. Moreover, in a sweeping condemnation of the process, and the refusal by the bill sponsors and backers to even consider amendments, she found that the underpinning intention of the bill was discriminatory.

She even condemned the state's gesture towards a free ID, the election identification certificate. Since people had to pay for a birth certificate to get one, that becomes a poll tax, and so unconstitutional under the 14th and 24th Amendments.

Now the state faces a major change to its voting rules with less than a month to go before election day. Secretary of State Nandita Berry said she and Attorney General Greg Abbott are reviewing the ruling but “as always, [her office] will assist Texas election officials in providing elections that are smooth, secure and successful.”

By contrast, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents the litigants, immediately applauded the decision. Chief counsel Jon M. Greenbaum called Ramos' ruling "a great victory for democracy," while committee co-director Bob Kengle added that "the Texas Legislature was determined to adopt the most restrictive photo identification law in the country and rejected repeated opportunities to reduce the law’s negative effects. It should come as no surprise that the court found a violation of federal law.”

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, tied the issue to her gubernatorial campaign, but through an accurate point: That this lawsuit is dragging on, and seemingly will end up in the US Supreme Court, because her Republican opponent Abbott insists on pushing it beyond any reasonable defense.

"I call on [Abbott] to drop his defense of a law that a court has now called a 'poll tax' and 'discriminatory' against African-Americans and Hispanics."

Her lite guv running mate Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, reinforced the argument that this is not, nor has it ever been, about voter fraud. Instead, this is simply a voter suppression technique.

“We all believe in upholding the integrity of our elections at the ballot box. However, Texas’ cumbersome voter photo identification requirements are an undue burden on Texas’ most vulnerable voters.”

Few members of the upper chamber have a stronger or longer record of fighting repressive voter ID than Sen. Rodney Ellis. Back in 2007, the Houston Democrat used the Senate's two-thirds rule to derail what he called "voter-intimidation laws" (two years later, the GOP suspended that same rule, but only when it came to voter ID). In 2011, Ellis slammed Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for wasting the Legislature's time when real issues, like a massive budget hole, were still pending. Regarding the new ruling, he wrote:

"As the court ruled, the voter ID law is essentially a modern day poll tax and has the same effect as other laws used in decades past to keep scores of lawful, legal Americans from voting. It was wrong then, it is wrong now, and I'm pleased the court stood up to protect the right to vote for all Texans."

The Senate's newest face, freshman Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Palito Blanco, represents one of the state's most diverse districts, and so one most open to abuses of the act. Noting that Ramos "compared the law to Jim Crow-era policies," she said:

"As American citizens, we have a right and a responsibility to vote; and as policy makers, we have a right and a responsibility to ensure we protect that right for all citizens. The voter ID law does not reduce voter fraud; it simply chips away at what makes this country a democracy."

So what happens next? Abbott has already pledged to appeal to the Fifth Circuit, in the clear hope of having the rules instituted in time for the November election, but these are complicated times for photo ID bills. SCOTUS has ruled that they are constitutional, and had previously kicked legal challenges to Texas' rules down to a lower court: But just yesterday, those same Supremes threw out Wisconsin's photo law. The devil, it seems, will be in Texas' details.

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