Texas Back-Step

Justice Department Retreats, Now Supports Texas Voter ID Law

Written by Jocilyn Estes, Common Cause intern, on July 7, 2017


There’s unsettling news from the Lone Star State today; after fighting for years to overturn Texas’ vote suppressing voter identification law, the Justice Department has filed a legal brief supporting and urging a judge to uphold the state’s revised ID requirements.

The filing argues that the new amendment to a law twice dismissed as discriminatory by a federal judge  “protects the integrity of Texas’s elections” and “eradicates any discriminatory effect or intent.”

Senate Bill 5 was signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in June to amend the state’s previous voter ID regulations. Passed in 2011, and struck down by federal district and appeals courts, the old law required voters to present one of seven forms of identification designated by the state.

The federal judge who shot down the original law described it as “an unconstitutional poll tax.” After Texas appealed that ruling, and lost,  the same judge ruled that the law also intentionally discriminated against minorities who were less likely to possess the forms of ID the law required. Rather than risk having Texas returned to the list of states that are required to get federal “preclearance” of changes to election law, Texas legislators chose to revise the ID requirement in light of the court’s conclusions.

The amended law allows Texans to vote without a photo ID if they present alternate forms of identification and sign an affidavit stating that a “reasonable impediment” prevented them from obtaining a photo ID. Approved alternate IDs include a birth certificate, copy or original of a bank statement, utility bill, government check, or paycheck that shows the voter’s name and address. The Justice Department contends that this modification remedies any prejudicial impact of the original law.

The latest filing on behalf of the department is a dramatic but unsurprising shift from the position of President Obama’s Justice Department, which had joined civil rights and voting rights groups in opposition to voter ID legislation. Shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was confirmed by the Senate in February, the Justice Department reversed the Obama position and pronounced itself satisfied that the law was not enacted with the intent to discriminate against minority voters.

The District Court is likely to rule soon on the new law. Despite the claims of the Justice Department, the new law would be an obstacle to voting for low-income, minority, elderly and other Texans who lack IDs or do not understand which IDs they should bring to the polls.

Last fall, "Literally thousands of people. Like five to six percent of the state just didn't go to the polls because they were confused by these laws," Common Cause Texas Executive Director​ Anthony Gutierrez told Time Warner Cable’s Spectrum news in Austin.

The case serves as an alarming indication of what passes for protecting the vote under the Trump administration. Should the law be upheld, its restrictions are likely to become the gold standard for legislators in other states looking to suppress voting rights under the guise of electoral integrity. While the court’s ruling will only directly touch voters in the Lone Star State, the dire implications for all Americans are clear.

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Office: Common Cause National, Common Cause Texas

Issues: Voting and Elections

Tags: Voting Rights

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