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Federal Judge Again Rules Texas's Voter ID Law Is Intentionally Discriminatory

Federal Judge Again Rules Texas's Voter ID Law Is Intentionally Discriminatory
Illustration by Monica Fuentes
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For a second time, a federal judge is not buying Texas's claims that its restrictive 2011 voter ID law was passed to stop voter fraud. Instead, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has again ruled that Texas lawmakers passed the bill with discriminatory intent.

In her 10-page ruling, Ramos called the 2011 law "draconian" and said its rigid nature was unjustifiable, failing to live up to its stated purpose of trying to protect the electoral system from fraud. Ramos handed down the ruling after the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court, in 2016, upheld Ramos's earlier decision that the 2011 voter ID law had a disparate impact on minority voters; but the Fifth Circuit asked Ramos to reconsider whether the law was written to intentionally discriminate against minority voters. After reviewing the evidence again, Ramos's opinion remained unchanged.

"There was no substance to the justifications offered for the draconian terms of SB 14," she wrote, referring to the name of the 2011 voter ID law. "This Court then concluded...that these efforts revealed a pattern of conduct unexplainable on nonracial grounds, to suppress minority voting."

The voter ID law, which was relaxed for the 2016 general election, did not allow anyone who did not possess a valid photo ID to cast a ballot, most prominently affecting minority voters. (For the presidential election, people without a photo ID could still bring utility bills or bank statements, then sign an affidavit saying why they didn't have a photo ID, in order to cast a vote.) In the ten years leading up to the passage of the voter ID law, Ramos notes that there were only two known in-person voter impersonation convictions out of more than 20 million votes cast, rendering the justification for the law nearly moot.

"Furthermore, the terms of the bill were unduly strict," Ramos wrote. "Many categories of acceptable photo IDs permitted by other states were omitted from the Texas bill. The period of time for which IDs could be expired was shorter in SB 14. Fewer exceptions were made available. And the burdens imposed for taking advantage of an exception were heavier with SB 14. The State did not demonstrate that these features of SB 14 were necessarily consistent with its alleged interest in preventing voter fraud or increasing confidence in the electoral system."

Texas is expected to appeal Ramos's decision — again.

On the same day of the ruling, the University of Houston released a study showing significant confusion about the voter ID law among registered voters who didn't show up to the polls in Harris County and also in Congressional District 23, stretching from San Antonio to El Paso. Republican Will Hurd beat his Democratic opponent Pete Gallego in 2016 to win the seat.

The study surveyed roughly 400 voters in each region about why they didn't vote — 37 percent of registered voters in Harris County stayed home and 45 percent in 23rd Congressional district. According to the study, most of the no-shows didn't vote because they disliked the candidates, about 60 percent. But about one in seven non-voters said they failed to participate in the 2016 election because they lacked a valid photo ID — even when further survey questions showed the vast majority actually did, but apparently were just confused. According to the study, 97 to 98 percent of voters in Harris County possessed a valid ID under the relaxed voting rules for the 2016 election, ordered by Ramos.

Remarkably, a closer look at that subset of voters confused about the voter ID law, two-thirds said they would have voted for the Democratic candidates — meaning it is likely Gallego could have defeated Hurd in the 23rd district. Hurd had won by only 1.3 points.

The survey also found Latino non-voters were significantly less likely than Anglo non-voters — 15 percent less likely — to accurately understand the 2016 voter ID laws.

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