On Wednesday Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton scored a small but significant victory in the long, convoluted legal battle to uphold a voter ID law that no less than two courts have ruled has a “discriminatory effect” on minority voters.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday announced that the full court would consider Texas’s appeal of two lower decisions calling the state’s voter ID law a violation of the Voting Rights Act and an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that unfairly targets African-American and Hispanic communities.
Prior to Senate Bill 14’s passage in 2011, voters in Texas simply needed proof of registration when heading to the polls. If they forgot their voter registration card, they could still cast a provisional ballot by signing an affidavit and presenting a photo ID, utility bill, bank statement or virtually any government mail showing their name and address. In 2014, federal district court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi called the law not just discriminatory and a violation of the voting rights act, but a modern-day poll tax.
Yet, despite the ruling striking down the law, the Fifth Circuit allowed the voter ID restrictions to go into effect during the 2014 midterm elections while Texas fought the ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, declined to step in. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a stinging dissent, said the court’s inaction “risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”
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Last summer, a panel of three Fifth Circuit judges struck down the law in a rather strange opinion. Sure, they upheld a lower court ruling that called the law unconstitutional. But the judges concluded that despite repeat warnings from opponents that the law would disenfranchise poor and minority voters (something some proponents of the law even publicly admitted would probably occur), the GOP majority that passed it didn't necessarily want for that to happen.
The Fifth Circuit’s decision to reconsider the case – this time with all judges weighing in – is a particularly important win for Paxton and state lawmakers who passed the law under the guise of widespread, rampant voter fraud (despite the fact that since 2004, only four people have been accused of ballot fraud).
While three Fifth Circuit judges have already unanimously ruled against the law, that doesn’t necessarily mean every judge on the court would do so. Considering the Fifth Circuit is the nation’s most conservative federal appeals court, the full court is arguably Paxton’s best chance at upholding the law ahead of the 2016 general election. The timing — the court agreeing to hear the case relatively early on in a presidential election year — certainly seems to be in Paxton's favor so far.