Texas challenges Voting Rights Act in court

In 2011, Texas sought to a law that changed the identification requirements for residents wishing to vote in local and national elections. 11 other stats passed voter ID laws between 2011-2012, but Texas’ bill has some of the strictest requirements in the country. The law has been on shaky ground since its inception, as local legislators failed to get pre-clearence from the Justice Department which must ensure that state laws do not violate the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. This caused the state to file a challenge against the Voting Rights Act itself, the case goes before the court today.

When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it was designed to ensure that no local requirements before being allowed vote placed an undue burden on citizens’ ability to exercise their rights. The Act specifically prohibits state and local governments from enacting pre-voting measures that are designed to suppress the vote or are shown to suppress the vote of ethnic minorities. Historical examples of this include poll taxes and literacy tests which were shown to be requirements that made it prohibitive for African Americans to vote.

Since signed into law, the Justice Department has served as the enforcer of the Act by screening state voting laws for measures that suppressed the vote either racially or otherwise under authorities granted by Section 5 of the statute. Section 5 specifically calls out 16 states with a history of racial discrimination, many of which are in the South and also includes Texas.

In 2011, when Texas took up its Voter ID legislation, the bill was presented to the Justice Department which said that it would unfairly suppress minority voting in the state. This led state Attorney General Greg Abbott to file a challenge in federal court against the Voting Rights Act – a case which will go before the court today. Abbott claims that it is unfair that some states must be screened under Section 5 while others are not.

If judges fail to clear Texas’ bill, Abbott has said that he will go to the Supreme Court to challenge the authority granted to the Justice Department under Section 5. Abbott and the legislature claim that voter fraud is a problem in Texas and the bill will guard against it. If Abbott is successful, the bill will be enacted before the Presidential election in November.

The Justice Department contends that the bill’s ID requirements are overly restrictive limiting acceptable identification to one of the following: a Texas driver’s license, a free or paid-for Department of Public Safety-issued ID card, a military card, a passport, a citizenship certificate or a Texas concealed gun license. Texas already requires voters to show a voter ID card or other form of identification.

“The state’s argument has this notion of widespread fraud, when what we know from the evidence is that so far, for 2008 and 2010, there were 13 million votes cast across the state and of those 13 million, there’s been one indictment for voter fraud,” said Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, one of the groups joining the Justice Department in an interview with the Associated Press.

According to the denial letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, the reasons for blocking the bill are as follows: “Thus, we conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.” (Emphasis Added.)

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, of the 11 states that took up Voter ID laws, Kansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia and Rhode Island have all had their laws approved. Minnesota and Wisconsin’s laws are in litigation and Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina have either been blocked or are awaiting federal approval. All of these states with the exception of Rhode Island have Republican Governors.

The case will have 25 hours of argument before the US District Court for the District of Columbia staring today. A decision may come as early as this week.