Under the Texas law, the minimum cost to obtain a voter ID for a resident without a copy of a birth certificate would be $22. The “election identification certificate” is free, but the legislature rejected a proposal to allow people to obtain the necessary supporting documents at no cost.
None of the travel and financial burdens associated with the new law “had ever before been imposed on Texas voters,” Tatel wrote in the opinion.
“A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote,” the opinion said. “Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by [the
voter-ID law], likely be unable to vote in the next election.”
Tatel, who was appointed to the appellate court by President Bill Clinton, was joined in the decision by U.S. district judges Rosemary Collyer and Robert L. Wilkins, appointed by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.
On Tuesday, a separate panel threw out Texas’s redistricting plans, saying the maps drawn by the legislature undermined the political rights of minorities who are responsible for the state’s population growth.
The Obama administration opposed both the Texas voter-ID law and the redistricting plans, contending that they threaten to disenfranchise millions of Latino and African American voters across the state.
“The court’s decision today and the decision earlier this week on the Texas redistricting plans not only reaffirm — but help protect — the vital role the Voting Rights Act plays in our society to ensure that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted,” Holder said in a statement Thursday.
The challenges are part of an escalating national legal battle over voter-ID laws that has become more intense because it is an election year. Eight states passed voter-ID laws last year, and critics say those statutes could hurt turnout among minority voters and others, many of whom helped elect President Obama in 2008.
Supporters of the measures — seven of which were signed by Republican governors and one by an independent — say that requiring voters to show specific photo IDs would prevent voter fraud.
Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state in this year’s presidential election, is on the front line of a bitter split between many Democrats and Republicans over voting rights. A Pennsylvania judge recently allowed a Republican-backed law requiring voters to show IDs to go into effect for this year’s elections, a setback for Democrats and civil rights groups.
In a courtroom just down the hallway from where judges heard arguments over the Texas voter-ID statute, attorneys for the Justice Department and South Carolina are squaring off this week over a similar measure passed by that state’s legislature last year.
The Justice Department rejected the South Carolina voter-ID law in December, and South Carolina sued the government.
Rather than clarifying the situation with other states, the Texas ruling adds to the legal uncertainty. The federal panel emphasized that it was issuing a narrow opinion that pertained only to the Texas law and not to other jurisdictions trying to implement similar laws.
“The State of Texas enacted a voter-ID law that — at least to our knowledge — is the most stringent in the country,” Tatel wrote.
Attorneys for Texas had cited a case in which the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter-ID law. But the federal panel Thursday rejected the comparison. Because of its history of discrimination, Texas, unlike Indiana, has the burden of proving that its law would not disenfranchise minorities, the panel said.
Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.