AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Texas' voter ID law has a `discriminatory' effect on minorities in a victory for President Barack Obama, whose administration took the unusual step of bringing the weight of the U.S. Justice Department to fight a wave of new ballot-box restrictions passed in conservative statehouses.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 2011 Texas law runs afoul of parts of the federal Voting Rights Act -- handing down the decision on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights law.
Texas was allowed to use the voter ID law during the 2014 elections, thereby requiring an estimated 13.6 million registered Texas voters to have a photo ID to cast a ballot.
The ruling was a victory, albeit not a sweeping one, for Democrats and minority rights groups. Whereas a Texas federal judge last year called the voter ID law the equivalent of a poll tax, a three-judge panel of the New Orleans court disagreed. It instead sent the law back to the lower court to consider how to fix the discriminatory effects.
Until then, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the law will still remain in effect, though he did not acknowledge the issues raised by court's mixed ruling.
"I'm particularly pleased the panel saw through and rejected the plaintiffs' claim that our law constituted a `poll tax.' The intent of this law is to protect the voting process in Texas, and we will continue to defend this important safeguard for all Texas voters," Paxton said.
Other Republican-controlled states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina, have passed similar voter ID measures in recent years, but the Texas law signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry is widely viewed as one of the nation's toughest. It requires one of seven forms of approved identification, a list that included concealed carry licenses but not a college student's university ID.
"Today's ruling is a victory for every Texas voter. Once again, the rule of law agrees with Democrats. The Republican voter ID law is discriminatory," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called it "imperative" that Texas has a voter ID law said the state will continue fighting for the measure.
Democrats and minority rights advocates had early success in blocking the law. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the path was cleared for Texas to enforce the new restrictions that supporters say prevent voter fraud.
Section 5, one of the parts of the act that was struck down, had forced certain state and local governments -- including Texas -- to get pre-clearance from the federal government before change voting laws to ensure they were free of discrimination.
Without that provision to rely on, opponents of the voter ID law had to meet the higher threshold under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of proving the law discriminated against minority voters.
The New Orleans panel sustained the lower court's ruling that the law interacts with "social and historical conditions in Texas to cause an inequality in the electoral opportunities enjoyed by African-Americans and Hispanic voters."
The Justice Department had argued that the Texas law would prevent as many as 600,000 voters from casting a ballot. Even though the lower court in Corpus Christi, Texas, found the law unconstitutional in 2014, it was allowed to remain in effect because the ruling had come so close to the election.
Unlike other states with voter ID restrictions, Texas doesn't recognize university IDs from college students at polling places, but does accept concealed handgun licenses as proof of identity. Free voting IDs are available from the state, but opponents say getting those cards still put underlying financial costs on voters, such as paying for birth certificate copies and travel. By PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick Statement on Federal Court Ruling on Texas' Voter ID Law
AUSTIN - Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made the following statement regarding the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling related to Texas' Voter ID law:
"As joint author of Texas Voter ID law, I strongly disagree with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which rejected a portion of that law. Texas' Voter ID law was passed by the legislature with the intent of preserving the integrity of the voting process. There was never any intention of preventing anyone from voting who is legally qualified to do so. It was designed to make sure that every vote that is cast is done so lawfully.
"In fact, during the most recent legislative session, Senate Bill 983, by Senator Paul Bettencourt, was passed by the Senate and signed into law by the Governor, allowing any citizen seeking a voter ID to obtain a free birth certificate. Texas law is intended to protect the right to vote, as well as preserve voters' confidence in our election system, regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic status."
Texas GOP Statement On Voter ID Ruling
“Today’s ruling is simply one step in a legal process and doesn’t change the fact that Texas voters overwhelmingly support Voter ID as a commonsense policy to protect the sanctity of our electoral process. Simply put, most Texans know Voter ID is a vital component to conducting fair elections in our state. If Democrats really care about disenfranchising Texas voters they should ask their Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa to drop the voter fraud case, that he has been defending for two years, and that two separate courts of law have said violated the voting rights of Texans. Until the Chairman of the Texas Democratic Party stops personally taking part in legal cases that disenfranchise voters his words are meaningless and his entire party’s rhetoric is hollow.”
- Tom Mechler
Texas GOP Chairman
Commenting on today’s Republican discriminatory voter ID ruling, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa issued the following statement:
“Texas Democrats believe that our nation and democracy is stronger when everyone is invited to participate in our electoral process.
"Today’s ruling is a victory for every Texas voter. Once again, the rule of law agrees with Democrats. The Republican voter ID law is discriminatory. Republicans made it harder for African-Americans and Latinos to cast their vote at the ballot box.
“We remain confident that the courts will find justice for Texas voters and ultimately strike down this racist and discriminatory law.
“I want to personally thank Congressman Marc Veasey, State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, and all of our outstanding Democratic legislators who have fought to defend Texas voters from this discriminatory law.”