A federal judge who has compared Texas’ voter ID requirements to a “poll tax” on minorities once again blocked the law Wednesday, rejecting a weakened version backed by the Trump administration and dealing Texas Republicans another court defeat over voting rights.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos rejected changes signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this summer as not only lacking but also potentially chilling to voters because of new criminal penalties. The new version didn’t expand the list of acceptable photo identifications — meaning gun licenses remained sufficient proof to vote, but not college student IDs.
Instead, the changes would allow people who lack a required ID to cast a ballot if they signed an affidavit and brought paperwork that showed their name and address, such as a bank statement or utility bill.
This is a blow to the Trump Justice Department, which supported the law, a reversal of the position adopted by the Obama Justice Department. This continues a losing streak for proponents of voter-ID laws. They have lost cases at the circuit court level in both North Carolina and Wisconsin.
In this case, a loss on voter ID, coupled with decisions striking down gerrymandered districts that reduced the influence of minority voters, could have serious consequences for Texas. (“The decision also leaves open the potential of Texas becoming the first state dragged back under federal oversight since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the federal Voting Rights Act, which had required states with troubled racial histories to submit election changes for approval. Gonzales Ramos left that question open for consideration later.”)
The court issued a blistering rebuke to proponents of SB 5, passed in attempt to remedy a prior law, SB 14, that was struck down:
SB 5 does not meaningfully expand the types of photo IDs that can qualify, even though the Court was clearly critical of Texas having the most restrictive list in the country. For instance, Texas still does not permit federal or Texas state government photo IDs—even those it issues to its own employees. SB 5 permits the use of the free voter registration card mailed to each registered voter and other forms of non-photo ID, but only through the use of a Declaration of Reasonable Impediment . . . . Because those who lack SB 14 photo ID are subjected to separate voting obstacles and procedures, SB 5’s methodology remains discriminatory because it imposes burdens disproportionately on Blacks and Latinos. . . .
The Court has found that SB 14 was enacted with discriminatory intent— knowingly placing additional burdens on a disproportionate number of Hispanic and African-American voters. The DRI procedure trades one obstacle to voting with another—replacing the lack of qualified photo ID with an overreaching affidavit threatening severe penalties for perjury. While the DRI requires only a signature and other presumably available means of identification, the history of voter intimidation counsels against accepting SB 5’s solution as an appropriate or complete remedy to the purposeful discrimination SB 14 represents.
One cannot help but conclude that proponents of these laws are constructing barriers to voting for a problem — voter impersonation — that does not exist. In issuing a wholesale injunction, the court found that “the lack of evidence of in-person voter impersonation fraud in Texas belies any urgency for an independently-fashioned remedy from this Court at this time.” The Brennan Center, which has challenged voter-ID laws, explained, “Fourteen judges in five opinions over four years have ruled that the original law, as written, violates the Voting Rights Act because it makes it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote. In 2014, Ramos found that 608,000 registered voters did not have the required photo ID, including a disproportionate number of minorities. She ruled again in April 2017 that the state intended to discriminate when it passed its original law.”
It is in this context that one should evaluate President Trump’s election fraud commission, designed to find evidence of massive voting fraud that presumably would help rescue voter-ID laws around the country. Keep in mind that evidence of people appearing on more than one state’s voting rolls (e.g. they moved and re-registered in a new state) or the fact that some rolls contain the names of deceased persons does not prove fraud or justify voter-ID laws. One must believe that a massive corps of voter impersonators fans out across the country to use the names left on the rolls. There is zero evidence of that, and as, secretaries of state of both parties have attested, virtually no evidence of voting fraud. But that won’t stop the commission from trying to construct a justification for voter-ID laws.
Nevertheless, voting — except in instances of discrimination like the Texas case — is largely within state control. In contrast to efforts to restrict voting, many states are moving in the opposite direction. As of last month, eight states and the District have authorized automatic voter registration. The National Conference of State Legislatures explained, “By registering through a routine and necessary transaction, voters won’t have to worry about registration deadlines or application submissions. In a sense, they are automatically enfranchised. Automatic registration also will lead to cleaner voter registration rolls because the process updates existing registrations with current addresses. This, in turn, will lead to more efficient elections, with the added benefit of reducing the use of costly provisional ballots, which are a fail-safe voting option when there is a discrepancy in a voter’s registration status.” In addition, “Some supporters also expect automatic voter registration to lead to higher voter turnout, although evidence is not available to prove this point yet.”
Access to voting should be an issue in every state and federal election. Does the candidate want to make it harder or easier to vote? Without evidence of actual fraud, why throw up barriers to voting? The Trump administration wants to make this an issue. Advocates of expanded access should join the issue, not only challenging efforts to restrict voting but also seeking to advance automatic registration. The public will see which side is on the side of democracy.