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Texas Voter ID Law Blocked by Federal Dist. Court

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on October 10, 2014 4:36 PM

Just when thought it was safe to go back in the voting booth. Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a surprise order lifting the Seventh Circuit's stay of enforcement on the district court's order in Wisconsin. All that procedural argle bargle means that Wisconsin won't be enforcing its voter ID law this November. This comes after the Court issued opposite orders in Ohio and North Carolina.

Now, Texas has entered the fray. Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas issued an opinion yesterday finding Texas' voter ID law unconstitutional and enjoining its enforcement.

The Kitchen Sink

Judge Ramos didn't pull any punches. Not only did the Texas law create an unconstitutional burden on voting, but it had a discriminatory purpose and effect, and was an unconstitutional poll tax.

As if readers weren't quite clear about Ramos' opinions on the subject, she began with a history of voting in Texas -- or, more correctly, a history of trying to disenfranchise minorities in Texas. By beginning with this background, Ramos is more justifiably able to come at the law from a place of skepticism.

This skepticism begins with Texas' asserted justification for voter ID, which is preventing in-person voter fraud. Ramos quoted testimony of several experts who concluded that in-person voter fraud happens very rarely in Texas and reports of voter fraud are trumped up without substantiation by politicians and the news media.

Then again, what was the justification? The order asserts that voter fraud was but one of several alternative justifications for the law, which included increasing public confidence in the electoral process, increasing voter turnout, and racial discrimination.

The court found that the burden of not having a valid photo ID, and being required to pay for one, would fall disproportionately on African-American and Hispanic voters (who otherwise would be eligible to vote). How disproportionate? Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor at Harvard University, analyzed the state's voter database and concluded that "Hispanic registered voters are 195% and African-American registered voters are 305% more likely than Anglo voters to lack SB 14 ID." The court noted, "Such racial disparities are statistically significant and "highly unlikely to have arisen by chance."

Not Like Marion County

The court quickly dismissed Crawford v. Marion County, where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter ID law. That law, Ramos said, was less restrictive than the Texas law, didn't bring up issues present here (like a poll tax), was a facial (not as-applied) challenge, and didn't have as developed a record as this case. Not terribly good reasons to distinguish it, but hey, you go with what you've got.

The Analysis Is Not Difficult

Ramos put to bed any notion that the state had a compelling interest in this case. Certainly deterring fraud was compelling, but the state made no showing that it was a pervasive enough problem to merit the burdensome restrictions of SB 14. Moreover, the effect of SB 14 falls disproportionately on minorities. The purpose? The court used a multifactor test to infer a discriminatory purpose, meaning the legislature didn't just choose a method in spite of its discriminatory character, but because of it. One of the factors is departure from normal legislative procedures, of which there were many in the passage of SB 14.

And, in the end, the court issued an injunction barring enforcement of SB 14's voter ID provisions. No word yet on the reaction from the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court.

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