This post first appeared in The Nation.
In one week last August, federal courts found that Texas’ voter ID law and redistricting maps were discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court’s recent decision invalidating Section 4 of the VRA, which previously covered Texas, tragically wiped away those rulings. Now the Department of Justice is once again stepping in to fight for voting rights in the Lone Star State.
The DOJ announced today that it is objecting to Texas’ voter ID law under Section 2 of the VRA and will also seek to join a similar lawsuit against the state’s redistricting maps. Last month, DOJ asked a court in Texas to force the state to approve its voting changes with the federal government for a period of time under another provision of the VRA, Section 3, based on a finding of intentional discrimination in the restricting case. The federal courts found last year that Texas’ new maps for Congress and the state house were “enacted with discriminatory purpose.”
A federal court blocked Texas’ voter ID law last year for very good reason. As I wrote last August, here are the facts of the case:
The state admitted that between 603,892 to 795,955 registered in voters in Texas lacked government-issued photo ID, with Hispanic voters between 46.5 percent to 120 percent more likely than whites to not have the new voter ID; to obtain one of the five government-issued IDs now needed to vote, voters must first pay for underlying documents to confirm their identity, the cheapest option being a birth certificate for $22 (otherwise known as a “poll tax”); Texas has DMV offices in only eighty-one of 254 counties in the state, with some voters needing to travel up to 250 miles to obtain a new voter ID. Counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the new voter ID (Hispanics in Texas are also twice as likely as whites to not have a car).
The court objected to the law specifically because “(1) a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID; (2) the burdens associated with obtaining ID will weigh most heavily on the poor; and (3) racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.” Along with North Carolina, Texas has the harshest and most absurd voter ID law in the nation. Case in point: you can use a gun permit to vote but not a student ID. The state is also doing nothing to encourage people to get the supposedly “free” ID; a month after the Supreme Court’s ruling, only six people in Texas had obtained one, even though 600,000 to 800,000 registered voters lack the government-issued ID.
In its new court filing, DOJ contends that the voter ID law “will disproportionately impact Hispanic and African-American voters in the State of Texas, resulting in their being disenfranchised at a greater rate than Anglo voters.” The department says the law, known as SB 14, was “motivated by discriminatory intent” and “will have a discriminatory result.”
From the brief:
While the stated purpose of SB 14 was to ensure the integrity of elections, voter ID proponents cited virtually no evidence during or after enactment of SB 14 that in-person voter impersonation — the only form of election fraud addressed by the identification requirements of SB 14 — was a serious problem or that the State’s then-existing identification procedures had failed to prevent in-person voter impersonation.
The State knew or should have known that Hispanic and African-American Texans disproportionately lack the forms of photo ID required by SB 14, as compared to their Anglo counterparts.
Nevertheless, supporters of voter ID in the Texas legislature made little to no effort to analyze the potential effect of photo ID requirements on minority voters and rejected amendments requiring investigation of the effect of SB 14.
The long history of voting discrimination in Texas makes the new law all-the-more worrisome. DOJ writes: “The State of Texas’s history of official racial discrimination against its African-American and Hispanic citizens is longstanding and well-documented. Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.” Texas has lost more Section 5 enforcement suits than any other state.
It will be much harder for the Department of Justice to block Texas’ voting changes under Section 2 of the VRA than it would have been under Section 5, but they’re smart to try. (See my piece on why Section 2 is no replacement for Section 5.) “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Attorney General Eric Holder said today. “This represents the Department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”
Since the Court’s decision, seven southern states have rushed to pass or implement onerous new voting restrictions. North Carolina recently adopted the country’s worst voter suppression law (which voting rights groups are also challenging under Section 2), with local election boards escalating attacks on student voting hours after its passage by shutting down polling places at college campuses and preventing students from running for office. Since Holder has vowed more action to protect voting rights, there’s a very good chance that the Tarheel State will be next on his list.