As mid-term elections approach, the simmering issue of voter ID laws boils over. Such is the case of Texas’ new voter ID law. Passed in 2011, the law has been quite controversial in that it requires presentation of photo ID for voting. Pro-ID forces argue that the law helps prevent voter fraud while anti-ID forces argue that the law deliberately makes voting more difficult for minorities, the poor and the disabled.
The law was challenged in District Court as deliberately discriminatory toward African-American and Hispanic voters and was struck down after full trial because it would deliberately deter a large number of registered voters, most of them African American or Hispanic, from voting. The District Court Judge stated that approximately 608,470 registered voters – 4.5% of all registered voters in Texas – lack the accepted ID and 534,512 of those voters do not qualify for a disability exemption from the ID law.
Voter ID law proponents appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the ID law, finding that it is too close to the November election to stop the law because stoppage would disrupt Texas’ electoral process.
Emergency applications were made to the U. S. Supreme Court and on October 18, 2015, the Court issued an unsigned order upholding the voter ID law for this election but giving no reasons for upholding it. The order was filed in time for this election’s early voting, commencing October 10, 2014.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg sharply dissented and said plenty, taking on the pro-voter-ID arguments one by one. Joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor in a six-page dissent, Ginsberg stated, “The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”
Ginsberg answered the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ argument about it being too close to the election to stop the law by saying that “Texas need only reinstate the voter identification procedures it employed for ten years (from 2003 to 2013) and in five federal general elections.”
In answer to the argument that the cost of obtaining a proper voter ID would be minimal, Ginsberg stated that even a minimal fee would be an unconstitutional barrier to voting: “Even at $2, the toll is at odds with this Court’s precedent. And for some voters, the imposition is not small. A voter whose birth certificate lists her maiden name or misstates her date of birth may be charged $37 for the amended certificate she needs to obtain a qualifying ID. Texas voters born in other States may be required to pay substantially more than that.”
Finally, Ginsberg answered the argument that Texas’ voter ID law is not intentionally discriminatory, stating, “Racial discrimination in elections in Texas is no mere historical artifact. To the contrary, Texas has been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every redistricting cycle from and after 1970.”
While the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ and Supreme Court’s orders are interim measures applying to these mid-term elections, appeals regarding long-term application of the voter ID law remain.
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