Fifth Circuit Says Texas Can Keep Voter ID Rules — For Now

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that even though a lower court has declared SB 5, the Texas voter ID law, to be unconstitutional, the state may keep enforcing the law while appealing the case.

By a vote of 2 to 1, the three-judge panel said that even though a federal judge said SB 5 intentionally discriminates against minority voters, the law may remain in place in elections this year, even though it is not scheduled to take effect until January 1, 2018.

The two judges in the majority wrote that they believe Texas will ultimately win the case on appeal, and noted the state spent $2.5 million educating voters about SB 5 during the 2016 election.

On August 24, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled that SB 5 too closely mirrored SB 14, the 2011 voter ID law the Texas Legislature passed, only to see it struck down by a federal judge. SB 5 was supposed to be the fix that enabled the state's voter ID law to pass legal muster. Instead, Texas has been dealt another defeat in court.

Both laws narrowed the acceptable forms of identification voters can use to prove their identity to be able to cast a ballot.

If there is any silver lining for minority voters in Tuesday's ruling, it is that, barring special elections, neither the Congress, the President nor state legislators and other statewide officials, like the governor and the lieutenant governor, will face voters in 2017. The real deadline for a resolution in the Texas voter ID law dispute is fall 2018, when the federal midterm elections will be held, as well as races for state officials such as governor.

For those reasons, Tuesday's ruling may be a hollow victory for SB 5 supporters, including Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The lone dissenting judge, James Graves Jr., noted in in his opinion that Texas had not "made a sufficiently strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits" of the case.

Graves cited a similar episode in North Carolina, where that state's legislature attempted to amend a voter ID law that a judge had declared discriminatory. But even with the tweaks, the court held that the purpose of the law was to suppress minority voting, and thus it was unconstitutional.

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