Federal court tosses out racist Texas voter suppression law

The bad news is there may not be five justices who care that the law is racist.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steven Senne
CREDIT: AP Photo/Steven Senne

In a decision that could significantly hobble conservative efforts to keep many voters from the polls if its reasoning is embraced by higher courts, a federal district court threw out Texas’ voter ID law in its entirety Wednesday evening.

Voter ID is a common method of voter suppression that disproportionately targets students, low-income voters, and people of color — all of which are groups that tend to prefer Democratic candidates to Republicans. Though voter ID defenders often claim that the laws are necessary to combat voter fraud at the polls, such fraud is virtually non-existent.

Indeed, as Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos notes in her Wednesday opinion, “there were only two votes cast that resulted in fraud convictions in the ten years prior to passage of” Texas’ voter ID law.

Judge Ramos’ Wednesday opinion builds on a prior decision that the law was enacted with the intent to discriminate against voters of color. As voting rights expert Rick Hasen notes, that decision, that the law was enacted for a discriminatory purpose, is significant for two reasons.

First, though the Voting Rights Act forbids voting laws that are enacted for racially discriminatory purposes and laws that merely have a discriminatory impact on people of color, courts can offer more sweeping relief when they determine that a racist intent drove the law.

In June, the Texas legislature amended its voter ID law in ways that mitigated, without entirely eliminating, the law’s impact on minority voters. That may have been enough to rescue some of the law absent a finding of discriminatory intent — though it is worth noting that Judge Ramos’ Wednesday opinion seemed utterly unimpressed with the June amendments — but it wasn’t enough to save the law given her determination that the law had a discriminatory motive.

Additionally, Ramos’ finding that the law was enacted with a discriminatory intent permits her to bring Texas back under the same kind of federal supervision that existed before the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act — though she deferred a decision on this issue pending further briefing.

Should she place Texas back under federal supervision, the state will have to pre-clear any new voting changes with the Justice Department or a federal court in D.C. to verify that the new voting rules will not discriminate, or else those new rules will not take effect.

So Wednesday’s order is good news for voting rights supporters, but it also comes with several caveats.

For starters, Ramos’ decision will appeal to the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Though the Fifth Circuit did hold that Texas’ law, at the very least, has a discriminatory effect on people of color, it is far from clear that the conservative court will go further than that.

More significantly, the law is all but certain to be reviewed by the Supreme Court — the same Supreme Court that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and that has generally been skeptical of voting rights claims. Indeed, if anything, the Court has grown more conservative since the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s was filled by Judge Neil Gorsuch — a man President Donald Trump selected because Senate Republicans held Scalia’s seat open for more than a year.