DOJ reverses position on Texas voter ID law

By Sara McCleary | Mar 30, 2017

HOUSTON – The U.S. Department of Justice has confirmed that it will withdraw its claim that a Texas’ voter-ID law was implemented with discriminatory intent.

The DOJ filed a motion Feb. 27 asking a federal court to dismiss its earlier claim, which had been made during the Obama administration. The law, which was enacted in 2011, has been fought in the courts for the last six years with critics calling it one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country.

The state initially tried to pass the law in 2011, but was prevented by a federal court in 2012, when it found that the law would make it more difficult for minority voters. The decision was a result of the Voting Rights Act, which required Texas to have any changes to election laws approved by the federal government or in a federal court. When the Supreme Court struck down that section of the VRA in 2013, however, the state was able to enact its law.

The law was again challenged in court, and was struck down in 2014 by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who heard from experts that 1.2 million eligible Texas voters did not possess one of the forms of ID acceptable under the new law, and that minorities would be most affected by the changes. Those experts noted that African-American registered voters and Hispanic registered voters are respectively 305 percent and 195 percent more likely to lack the required ID than white registered voters.

Though in her written opinion Ramos did not find that there was any blatantly racist intent visible in passing of the law, she found that the sponsors of the bill “were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate.”

The state immediately appealed the decision, and the case went to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Ramos’ decision was upheld by the appellate court in August 2015, which found that the restrictive requirement concerning photo ID violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. However, the appeals court found that while the law had a discriminatory impact, it hadn’t been proven that it had been passed with a discriminatory intent. Therefore, the Circuit Court sent the case back to the lower court to reconsider this part of its ruling.

Until February’s reversal, the DOJ had been working with various legal groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to battle the law and prove that it had been enacted with discriminatory intent against voters of color.

Now, with Jeff Sessions, a well-known proponent of voter identification laws, heading the DOJ, many are unsurprised by the switch in positions, though still disappointed.

In a press release sent out Feb. 28, Legal and Policy Director for the ACLU of Texas Rebecca L. Robertson said: “Every court that has heard this case has determined that the Texas photo voter ID law disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of legally qualified voters. The attorney general’s decision to withdraw its opposition to a law that keeps low-income Texans and people of color out of the voting booth is hugely disappointing. The Justice Department should be doing everything in its power to encourage participation in the democratic process, not giving tacit support to the state’s effort to suppress it.”

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