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Fifth Circuit rules strict Texas voter ID laws violate Voting Rights Act

A federal appeals court found that exceedingly strict voter ID laws in Texas violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 due to the laws’ disparate impact on minorities.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that a Texas voter identification law, also known as Senate Bill 14, discriminates against African-Americans and Hispanics by diminishing their ability to vote.  Although the Court did not make a determination on whether Senate Bill 14 was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, it did find that the law violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“the Act”).

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was Congress’s response to the resistance of state officials to properly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment

The Act, signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was Congress’s response to the resistance of state officials to properly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.  This resistance resulted in the failure of anti-discrimination laws to protect the voting rights of citizens of all colors and nationalities.  Among the provisions of the Act are nationwide bans on denying the right to vote based on the results of literacy tests or any other practice or procedure that discriminates on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.

The Act’s effectiveness in prohibiting voter discrimination was largely reduced in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down a provision that allowed federal oversight of election laws in nine states (including Texas) with histories of racial discrimination, a key provision of the Act.  While the Act still bans laws aimed at stifling minority voting, since the 2013 Supreme Court decision it has been unclear exactly what types of laws the Act will invalidate.

Senate Bill 14 is one of the strictest in the country and requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls

After the decision of the Fifth Circuit, it is clear that at least some courts are not willing to tolerate voter ID laws as strict as those currently being used in Texas.  Senate Bill 14 is one of the strictest in the country and requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls.

Prior to the implementation of Senate Bill 14, a Texas voter could cast a ballot in person by presenting a registration certification, which is a document mailed to voters when they register to vote.  Voters who did not have the certificate could cast a ballot by signing an affidavit and presenting one of multiple forms of acceptable identification, including a current or expired driver’s license, a photo ID (including student and employee IDs), a utility bill, a paycheck, a bank statement, or a government document showing the voter’s name and address.

Senate Bill 14 requires voters to present a much more specific type of ID at the polls.  The acceptable forms of ID include: (1) a Texas driver’s license or personal ID card issued by the Department of Public Safety that has not been expired for more than sixty days; (2) a U.S. military ID card with a photograph that has not been expired for more than sixty days; (3) a U.S. citizenship certificate with a photo; (4) a U.S. passport that has not been expired for more than sixty days; (5) a license to carry a concealed handgun issued by the Department of Public Safety that has not been expired for more than sixty days; or (6) an Election Identification Certificate (“EIC”) issued by the Department of Public Safety that has not been expired for more than sixty days.  In order to receive an EIC, a registered voter is required to present either one form of primary ID, two forms of secondary ID, or one form of secondary ID and two pieces of supporting information.

The plaintiffs claimed that Senate Bill 14 . . . was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and has a racially discriminatory effect

The Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 14 in 2011 and began enforcing the law in June 2013.  Shortly thereafter, multiple plaintiffs and intervenors filed suits to enjoin the enforcement of the law, all of which were consolidated before a federal district court in Texas.  The plaintiffs include multiple individuals suing in their personal capacities, as well as numerous organizations, such as the Texas Association of Hispanic County Judges and County Commissioners, the Texas League of Young Votes Education Fund, the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives.

The plaintiffs claimed that Senate Bill 14 photo ID requirements violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution as well as the Act because Senate Bill 14 was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and has a racially discriminatory effect.  Plaintiffs also argued that the photo ID requirement places a substantial burden on the fundamental right to vote contained in the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and essentially constitutes a poll tax as defined under the Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments.

The State defended Senate Bill 14 by arguing that its photo ID requirements are constitutional because they are aimed at preventing in-person voter fraud as well as increasing voter turnout and confidence.

Because the Court found that Senate Bill 14 violated the Act, it declined to rule on the plaintiff’s claims that the law violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights

The Fifth Circuit first considered whether Senate Bill 14 was enacted with a discriminatory purpose.  The Court recognized in their opinion that while the State’s stated purpose in enacting Senate Bill 14 appears legitimate, it must also consider the underlying motives of the law.  The Court stated:

No one questions the legitimacy of these concerns as motives; the disagreement centers on whether there were impermissible motives as well.  We recognize that evaluating motive, particularly the motive of dozens of people, is a difficult enterprise.  We recognize the charged nature of accusations of racism, particularly against a legislative body, but we also recognize the sad truth that racism continues to exist in our modern American society despite years of laws designed to eradicate it.

After a lengthy evaluation of Texas’s history of voter ID laws and voter discrimination, the Fifth Circuit held that instead of making the determination as to whether there was a discriminatory purpose, the issue should be remanded to the district court to reexamine the evidence underlying the plaintiff’s discriminatory purpose claim.

Next, the Fifth Circuit assessed whether Senate Bill 14 violated the Act by diminishing African-Americans’ and Hispanics’ ability to vote.  The federal district court that initially heard the case found that Senate Bill 14 was in violation of the Act.  The Fifth Circuit evaluated the issue under a “clear error” standard, meaning that the appeals court would only overturn the opinion of the district court decision if it found that the district court clearly erred in making its findings.  The findings by the district court were that:

(1) SB 14 specifically burdens Texans living in poverty, who are less likely to possess qualified photo ID, are less able to get it, and may not otherwise need it; (2) a disproportionate number of Texas living in poverty are African-Americans and Hispanics; and (3) African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than Anglos to be living in poverty because they continue to bear the socioeconomic effects caused by decades of racial discrimination.

The Fifth Circuit found that “[t]he district court thoroughly evaluated the ‘totality of the circumstances,’ each finding was well-supported, and the State had failed to contest many of the underlying factual findings.”  Because the Court found that Senate Bill 14 violated the Act, it declined to rule on the plaintiff’s claims that the law violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The Court also found that Senate Bill 14 did not constitute a poll tax as the plaintiffs had claimed.

While the Fifth Circuit’s opinion had provided valuable precedent on what will and will not be tolerated under the Act since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, there is still much precedent to be made.  Controversial voting rights laws in North Carolina have been the topic of debate in recent years, as the state has made cutbacks to voting measures frequently utilized by minorities, such as early voting and same-day registration and voting.  The inevitable lawsuits that will come of these allegedly discriminatory actions of lawmakers will hopefully provide a more decisive analysis of what rights still exist under the Voting Rights Act.

Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer
About Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer (17 Articles)
Rachel Goodling is a 2016 graduate and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Cary, North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Political Science minor. Following her first year of law school, Rachel worked at the NC Department of Justice, Medicaid Investigations Division as the criminal intern. Following her second year of law school, Rachel interned at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services handling post-conviction appeals as well as civil claims made by inmates across North Carolina. Rachel was also on Campbell's National moot court team.
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