In an about-face, the U.S. Department of Justice is pulling out of the voter ID lawsuit filed against Texas, accusing its restrictive 2011 voter ID law of being intentionally discriminatory against minority voters.
Under the leadership of President Donald Trump's new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the feds dropped the discrimination claim just one day before a judge was set to hear crucial arguments in the case. Now, the feds say they would rather just let the Texas Legislature resolve the issue.
In August 2016, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state to temporarily change the state's voter ID law to allow people who did not possess a government-issued photo ID to vote in alternative ways, such as with bank statements or utility bills, and then sign an affidavit explaining their "reasonable impediment" stopping them from obtaining the ID. Since then, the Justice Department argues, "the circumstances have now changed dramatically."
"There are no impending federal or statewide elections; the Texas Legislature is currently convened in its biennial legislative session; and the State has asked the Court to defer to its ongoing legislative efforts to enact an appropriate amendment to its voter identification law," lawyers wrote, explaining the three core reasons for its voluntary removal from the case.
After finding that the 2011 voter ID requirements had a disparate impact on minority voters, the Fifth Circuit had sent the case back down to a lower federal court so that Texas and various voting-rights groups, with the DOJ on their side, to argue over whether the state's law was written to intentionally discriminate. The voting rights groups plan to continue litigating the case — but said they were disappointed in the DOJ's apparent lack of commitment to voting rights.
“The discriminatory facts of the Texas voter ID law have not changed,” Gerry Hebert, director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “The only thing that has changed is Jeff Sessions’ appointment as attorney general. The choice to exclude forms of ID that students and minorities are more likely to bring to the polls was not done by accident. It was done to make it more difficult for these groups to vote.”
Last week, a host of Texas lawmakers proposed a new voter ID law that would put it in line with the federal court orders. The proposed bill, SB5, is similar to the temporary voting rules from the 2016 general election: If poor people who can't obtain a driver's license or unlucky people who just got robbed don't have photo IDs in time for the election, they can still vote using various alternative forms, then signing the affidavit.
The feds appear to believe that this new law would resolve all the issues, even pointing to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's statement praising the bill.
The DOJ filed a joint motion with Texas in an attempt to delay the lawsuit until that law could be passed, but U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said no. The case has already been a slog: Filed in 2013, it's racked up a whopping 999 legal filings since then.
Ramos will hear the arguments as scheduled tomorrow.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.