Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas's Latest Voter ID Law

Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas's Latest Voter ID Law
Graphic by Monica Fuentes
For the umpteenth time, a federal court has found that Texas's voter ID law is discriminatory. This time, it's the law the Texas Legislature just passed during the regular session as an attempt to eliminate the discriminatory intent of its more restrictive 2011 voter ID law.

But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled Wednesday that Texas didn't go far enough, and that traces of the former law's discriminatory purpose still remain in Senate Bill 5. In fact, she found it heightened voter intimidation. She granted a permanent injunction against the law, angering Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has had a rough couple weeks in the voting rights realm. He said Texas will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Today’s ruling is outrageous," he said. "Senate Bill 5 was passed by the people’s representatives and includes all the changes to the Texas voter ID law requested by the 5th Circuit. “The U.S. Department of Justice is satisfied that the amended voter ID law has no discriminatory purpose or effect. Safeguarding the integrity of elections in Texas is essential to preserving our democracy. The 5th Circuit should reverse the entirety of the district court’s ruling.”

Gonzales Ramos found SB5 to still be discriminatory even though it largely mirrors the interim voter ID law she approved just before the 2016 general election; she said the interim law was never intended to be a permanent fix. Texas, however, made several tweaks to Gonzales Ramos's interim order—which turned out to cost it big time. SB5 expanded the number of photo IDs people can use by allowing people to vote with IDs that have expired in the last four years rather than just 60 days (plus no expiration for voters over 70, which Gonzales Ramos notes are disproportionately white). Still, Gonzales Ramos found that this addition did not "meaningfully" expand options for voters since those who do not possess the right ID—who are disproportionately Hispanic or African Americans, Gonzales Ramos has found—are subject to additional obstacles.

Including the threat of prosecution for perjury.

That's the big winner in Gonzales Ramos's case against Texas. For anybody who doesn't have an acceptable form of photo ID, he or she must bring a secondary form of ID—such as a voter registration card, birth certificate, utility bills—and sign a "declaration of reasonable impediment," selecting from a list of six reasons why they are unable to obtain the right ID. On the form, it notes that those who lie about why they don't have an ID will be prosecuted for a state jail felony, which is punishable by up to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Here's the kicker: Texas eliminated the "other" option for voters to select if their impediment for not obtaining a photo ID isn't one of the six Texas offered. What if it's not "lack of transportation" or "family responsibilities," but financial hardship? That could potentially place voters in a tricky position, Gonzales Ramos says: Do they select a reason for not having the ID that isn't 100 percent accurate and therefore risk committing perjury? Or do they just give up their right to vote out out of fear of going to jail?

"Requiring a voter to address more issues than necessary under penalty of perjury and enhancing that threat by making the crime a state jail felony appear to be efforts at voter intimidation," Gonzales Ramos wrote. "The record reflects historical evidence of the use of many kinds of threats and intimidation against minorities at the polls—particularly having to do with threats of law enforcement and criminal penalties."

Gonzales Ramos said the portion of the declaration asking voters to explain themselves appears to be pointless, at least legally. She said they do nothing to prevent fraud or confirm a person's identity.

"Nothing in the record explains why the state needs to know that a person suffers a particular impediment to obtaining one of the qualified IDs. The impediments do not address whether the persons are who they say they are and the impediments are not being used to assist in obtaining qualified ID. There is no legitimate reason in the record to require voters to state such impediments under penalty of perjury and no authority for accepting this as a way to render an unconstitutional requirement constitutional.

The blow comes just one week after a panel of federal judges in San Antonio found two of Texas's congressional voting districts violate the Voting Rights Act because they were illegally gerrymandered based on race.

Both voting legal battles have been waging for years, because Texas, instead of settling the cases, continues to staunchly fight them. The U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama Administration sided with the plaintiffs in the voter ID case, but after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, pulled out of the case, saying SB5 looked good.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn