On August 23rd, a Federal Judge blocked a Texas law requiring voters to present some form of identification before voting. In her 27-page court order, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled that the law (known as Senate Bill 5) was discriminatory against black people and Latinos. She found SB 5 to be an insufficient revision of the original legislation, Senate Bill 14, which was even stricter. SB 14 required voters to present a formal ID such as a driver’s license or a passport. In an attempt to appease the federal court, lawmakers wrote SB 5, which loosened the ID requirement, allowing voters to present utility bills or bank statements in place of official identification. Additionally, the new law allowed voters to sign an affidavit showing that there was a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID. Needless to say, the legislators’ attempt to appease the court was inadequate.
Specifically, Judge Ramos, an Obama appointee, noted that the new law did not go far enough in softening the ID requirement. She wrote, “SB 5 does not meaningfully expand the types of photo IDs that can qualify, even though the Court was clearly critical of Texas having the most restrictive list in the country.”
Explaining her reasoning, Ramos observed that though SB 5 allowed voters to use other forms of ID, they could only do so “through the use of a Declaration of Reasonable Impediment.” Thus, according to the court order, SB 5 created “separate voting obstacles and procedures” for “those [lacking] SB 14 photo ID.” She concluded, “SB 5’s methodology remains discriminatory because it imposes burdens disproportionately on Blacks and Latinos.”
Additionally, she noted, the criminal penalties attached to falsified affidavits could ultimately prevent voters from submitting Declarations of Reasonable Impediment, effectively reducing voter turnout.
Ramos, thus, permanently blocked both SB 5 and SB 14, which had already been enjoined by both the US District Court of Southern Texas and the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals prior to the 2016 election.
The DOJ’s Reversal
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed discontent with the recent ruling, referring to it as “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.” He also highlighted the fact that the Trump administration has given its full support to the Texas statute.
Shortly after taking office, the newly sworn-in president immediately reversed the position of the Justice Department by asking the court to disregard the Obama administration’s stance regarding the Texas voter ID law. Trump and AG Jeff Sessions – both incredibly vocal about allegedly rampant voting fraud – argued on behalf of Texas lawmakers, pointing out the fact that the legislators were working to change the law to meet the court’s expectations. Flash forward to August: Judge Ramos opposed the DOJ, permanently halting the discriminatory voter ID law.
Voting Rights Act
Judge Ramos’ decision marked the third ruling in August against Texas’ discriminatory voting policies. On August 15th, a federal court shot down the 2013 voting redistricting maps in Texas because they were clearly drawn with “racially discriminatory intent.” Then, on August 17th, the Fifth Circuit decided that a statute limiting translation assistance offered to non-English speaking voters contradicted the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Now, with the most recent injunction, it is possible that Texas could be subject to federal oversight as required by the recently rescinded section of the VRA.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, canceling the provision that required states with a history of discriminatory voting policies to submit proposed voting laws to the federal government for approval. In redacting this section of the VRA, the Supreme Court indicated that a state could be placed under federal supervision if it could be shown that legislators had implemented discriminatory voting statutes.
Paxton has already promised to appeal the decision. If the case reaches the Supreme Court, Justices could find themselves revisiting questions surrounding the Voting Rights Act.