The Austin Chronicle

Voter ID: Battle Lost, War Goes On

By Richard Whittaker, October 18, 2014, 4:16pm, Newsdesk

The US Supreme Court has decided to let Texas voter ID laws stand. That is, for the November elections and resulting run offs. But the parties that brought the challenges to the rules are determined that this will be a one-time deal.

It's been a three year progression from the original passage of Senate Bill 14, the legislation that introduced the new strictures requiring a photo ID at the poll, to its first appearance at the ballot box.

There's a little part of that history is forgotten: In 2011, Democrats were not in blanket opposition to the Republican-penned bill. Once it was clear that the measure would be shoved through, they proposed amendments that would have not only made the ballot more secure from the rare instances of in-person voter fraud, but would have also prevented the egregious disenfranchisement of an estimated 600,000 Texans – predominantly African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic – in this election cycle. The Republican leadership ignored this, and so ensued three years of legal challenges.

The law has bounced to and fro, between Texas, the Fifth Circuit, and SCOTUS. In the latest volley, on Oct. 9 US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos issued a stay, calling the rules a poll tax and a new Jim Crow. Then on Oct. 17, the Fifth Circuit overturned her stay, arguing that it was too close to the election to make changes. Now the majority of SCOTUS justices have, with no further statement, denied the latest appeal asking for the Fifth Circuit's stay on Ramos' stay to be vacated.

Not everyone on the bench was happy. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg heavily criticized the lower appeal judges for basically punting on a ruling, and shrugging that there was just to much information to examine this close to the election. Joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, she wrote, "The fact-intensive nature of this case does not justify the Court of Appeals’ stay order; to the contrary, the Fifth Circuit’s refusal to home in on the facts found by the district court is precisely why this Court should vacate the stay."

The decision is in keeping with SCOTUS precedent, as cited by the Fifth, to not change election rules so close to the start of voting. However, it has still left opponents of SB 14 appalled. Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said, “A court of law found that Texas’ photo ID was enacted with intentional discrimination against minority voters and yet that discrimination is being allowed to infect the November elections."

Referring to the landmark ruling that effectively suspended Section 4(B) of the Voting Rights Act (defining which states require federal preclearance), Bob Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote, "The beast of Shelby County and the timing of the decision in that case have now disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Texas voters."

So opponents of Texas' current rules have lost the battle, but maybe not the war. While as many as 600,000 Texans may just have had their constitutional right to vote suppressed for this election cycle, the actual terms of the law have yet to be heard by the Fifth or by SCOTUS. With the supreme justices recently striking down the equally discriminatory Wisconsin voter ID law, Lone Star Project director Matt Angle said, "While the Supreme Court will allow Abbott’s discriminatory voter ID requirement to stay in place for the 2014 elections, I believe the Court will ultimately strike down the law."

There is also increasing pressure on congress to fix what SCOTUS broke last year, and revamp the VRA. Calling Friday's ruling "a huge disappointment," Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights president Wade Henderson said, "This is what the world looks like without a strong Voting Rights Act. Congress’s first order of business when it comes back to Washington must be to restore the VRA.”

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