Some good news on voting rights, for a nice change! A federal judge in Texas has ruled — again — that the state’s 2011 voter ID law was passed with the intention to discriminate against minority voters and therefore violates the federal Voting Rights Act. And yes, that really is “ruled again”:
The judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, had made a similar ruling in 2014, but after Texas appealed her decision, a federal appellate court instructed her to review the issue once more.
The appeals court — the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans — found that Judge Ramos had relied too heavily on Texas’ history of discriminatory voting measures and other evidence it labeled “infirm” and asked her to reweigh the question of discriminatory intent.
In Monday’s ruling, Judge Ramos said the evidence cited in the appeals court didn’t change things enough to “tip the balance” in favor of the State of Texas. Texas is, of course, expected to appeal it once again, so the 2011 Texas law — often called the most restrictive in the nation — may well still be dragging through the courts during Malia Obama’s presidency. Hopefully, it’ll be resolved in her first term.
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Rather than try to see into the heart of each state legislator who voted for the law, Ramos’s decision explains, the court “considers all available direct and circumstantial evidence of intent,” including such factors as the law’s historical context, any departures in procedure in the passage of the law, and
Whether there is a clear pattern, unexplainable on grounds other than race, which emerges from the effect of the state action even when the governing legislation appears neutral on its face
Ramos also noted it was only necessary to show that discrimination was one of the motives for the legislation, even if it had others.
Plaintiffs testified that the law, Senate Bill 14, had indeed been rushed through the Texas Legislature using methods that departed from normal, including being classified as “emergency” legislation, supposedly because Texas faced a crisis of voter fraud for which the state has never provided any evidence. Thanks to that designation, debate was limited and the normal committee process was bypassed. The Republican majority also rejected Democrats’ efforts to reduce the restrictive impact of the law, such as amendments that would have allowed a wider range of photo IDs; notoriously, Texans can vote using a concealed firearm permit, but not a university ID card. Judge Ramos noted the law’s list of acceptable ID’s was overly restrictive, writing, “Many categories of acceptable photo IDs permitted by other states were omitted from the Texas bill[.]”
Ramos was particularly skeptical of the state’s argument that the bill was needed to fight voter fraud, noting that while SB 14 was being considered, testimony identified “only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade leading up to SB 14’s passage.” The state also never adequately explained how the burdensome restrictions on voting would prevent in-person fraud, while it was clear the restrictions would make voting harder for non-fraudulent voters.
In summary, Ramos determined Texas hadn’t met the requirement of demonstrating “that the law would have been enacted without its discriminatory purpose,” and that the ID law therefore violated the Voting Rights Act. The finding of discriminatory intent could have big consequences for Texas, notes the New York Times:
The finding of intentional discrimination could once again put Texas under federal supervision. It would be the first state brought back into so-called preclearance since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling. Judge Ramos did not address whether she would order Texas to undergo federal oversight, but will examine the issue during the next stage of the case.
Texas of course still insists there was no discriminatory intent, apparently because none of the legislators were stupid enough to say out loud “This law will do a great job of keeping blacks and Hispanics from voting.” (This marks the first time Republicans have ever learned from past mistakes.)
They’ll no doubt appeal the decision all the way to the newly engorsuched Supreme Court, which for all we know will now only strike down voting restrictions if states still have segregated restrooms in their capitol buildings.
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