THE U.S. DISTRICT Court is soon to rule on Texas’s new voter ID law. Ostensibly to combat voter fraud — the existence of which has yet to be demonstrated — the law would require every voter to present a government-issued photo ID at the poll. After a week of arguments this month, the question before the panel of federal judges is whether this law — one of many to emerge in the wake of 2010’s Republican legislative resurgence — places an undue burden on minorities.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, jurisdictions such as Texas with a history of suppressing minority voting must prove that any new requirements don’t “have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” In March, the Justice Department denied the Lone Star State the necessary clearance for this new law, arguing that it would disproportionately affect Hispanic voters. Texas officials appealed. To preserve the access of all citizens to the right to vote — certainly among the most sacrosanct in our democracy — the District Court should follow the Justice Department’s lead and strike down this highly suspect and unnecessary law.
Should the judges rule in favor of this photo ID requirement, their decision will essentially legitimize a politically motivated attempt to institutionalize disenfranchisement in other states besides Texas. Eleven states have passed voter ID laws since the Republican legislative victories in 2010, and nine of them — including Texas — have Republican governors. It’s no secret that President Obama’s popularity among minority voters contributed significantly to his 2008 victory. According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, this recent spate of laws would affect these voters the most.
Although the official justification for voter ID laws remains the precaution against voter fraud, it’s funny how this apparent threat to the fabric of our democracy — so pervasive that it somehow eluded even a federal investigation — has become a widespread concern only in the past two years. As if there were ever any doubt as to the real impetus, Pennsylvania House Republican leader Mike Turzai said it best. The Keystone State’s photo-ID requirement, he said, “is going to allow [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
As the Supreme Court maintained in a 2008 ruling that upheld a similar law in Indiana, states have a “valid interest” in making sure voters are who they say they are. But there’s no significant evidence to the contrary. In any case, if the goal of these laws was genuinely to protect that interest, they’d include adequate provisions accounting for the considerable financial and transportation burdens they’re sure to place on many voters.
Until they do, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is right: These laws are the 21st-century century equivalent of poll taxes.