DC Circuit Court blocks Texas’s voter ID law
Texas’s voter identification law was struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.
A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Texas’s “stringent” photo ID requirements would make it more difficult and costly for poorer and working class Americans to vote. And given the “undisputed record evidence” showing Hispanics and African-Americans are “disproportionately more likely to live in poverty” in Texas, the state’s voter ID law would, in effect, discriminate against and disfranchise Hispanic and African-American voters, thereby violating the 15th Amendment.
“Many Hispanic and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by SB14, likely be unable to vote in the next election. This is retrogression,” concluded Circuit Court Judge David S. Tatel in Texas v. Holder.
The D.C. Circuit Court’s decision means that Texas won’t be able to enforce the stricter voter ID law this November, and voters will be still allowed to present non-photo IDs – such as their voter registration cards, birth certificates, utility bills, or official government mails – to verify their identities at the polls.
Attorney General Eric Holder praised the court’s ruling for “ensuring that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state will appeal the federal court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“[The] decision is wrong on the law and improperly prevents Texas from implementing the same type of ballot integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana – and were upheld by the Supreme Court,” said state Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Background on SB14
The case centers around Senate Bill 14, which was passed by the Texas state legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Texas lawmakers claimed that SB14 is necessary to prevent and deter in-person voter fraud despite the lack of documented cases of actual in-person voter fraud being committed in Texas.
If enacted, SB14 would require all voters to present one of the 5 forms of “approved” government-issued photo IDs before casting a ballot:
- A driver’s license or personal ID card issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety;
- A license to carry a concealed weapon issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety;
- An ID issued by the U.S. military;
- A U.S. passport;
- Or a U.S. citizenship certificate with photograph.
Prospective voters, who don’t have any of the 5 aforementioned IDs, could also obtain a photographic election identification certificate (EIC) free of charge through the Department of Public Safety.
However, the Department of Public Safety requires EIC applicants to present at least one of the following documents to obtain an election certificate: an expired Texas driver’s license or personal ID card; an original or certified copy of a birth certificate; U.S. citizenship or naturalization papers; or a court order indicating a change of name and/or gender. All of those prerequisite documents cost money. The court noted that “EIC applicants – i.e., would-be voters – who possess none of these underlying forms of identification will have to bear out-of-pocket costs.”
For example, obtaining a birth certificate in Texas costs at least $22. (People who were born outside of Texas may have to pay higher fees, depending on the state.) Obtaining a legal change of name costs more than $152. Obtaining a copy of U.S. citizenship or naturalization papers costs $354.
About 795,955 registered voters, of which 38.2% are Hispanic, do not have the SB14-mandated photo IDs to vote in November, according to data provided by Texas officials.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act
Since Texas is one of the “covered jurisdictions” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of its history of discrimination against non-white voters, the state is barred from implementing any changes to its voting laws or election procedures without securing a “preclearance” from the Justice Department.
The Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress in 1965 to prevent states from imposing laws – such as literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, or property qualifications – designed to discourage or disqualify African-Americans from voting.
Under Section 5, a “covered jurisdiction” such as Texas must prove that its law:
(1) lacks a “discriminatory purpose”, meaning that the law was not passed with the intention of discriminating against a certain group of people;
(2) and does not have a retrogressive effect. In other words, the law may not erode voting rights and access of minority groups that have suffered discriminations in the past.
The Justice Department denied preclearance for SB14, citing the law’s disproportionate negative impact on Hispanic and African-American voters. Noting that the “record contains virtually no evidence of in-person voter fraud in Texas”, the Justice Department suggested that the “specter of in-person voter fraud is a chimera meant to mask the discriminatory purpose behind SB14”.
Texas sued in federal court to reverse the Justice Department’s decision.
SB14 imposes economic burden on poorer, working-class minorities
According to court documents, Texas argued that its voter ID law would impose only a “minor inconvenience” to voters. State officials contended that would-be voter who don’t obtain the required photo ID “have eschewed their right to vote”.
Texas also cited voter ID laws in Indiana and Georgia, both of which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, to support its position that SB14 should be allowed to take effect in November. But, as the judges pointed out, Texas’s voter ID law is far stricter and more costly for voters than those of Georgia and Indiana.
In fact, the judges cited the economic burden, particularly on minority racial groups, as the underlying reason for striking down SB14.
First, it’s important to keep in mind that Hispanic and African-American populations have significantly higher poverty rates than the white population in Texas. The U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 25.8% of Hispanics in Texas live at or below poverty level; that figure is 23.3% for African-Americans, compared to only 8.8% for whites. Thus, any economic burden would disproportionately impact Hispanics and African-Americans, resulting in a retrogressive effect prohibited under the Voting Rights Act.
For example, if SB14 were to take effect, the cheapest option for an American-born Hispanic voter without any of the 5 “approved” photo IDs would be to obtain a purportedly “free” election identification certificate at the nearest Department of Public Safety. To do so, however, the voter would have to spend at least $22 to obtain a copy of his birth certificate from the state of Texas. The $22 fee could be very hefty for someone who’s living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling to pay for groceries, rent, and/or child care.
The EIC prerequisite document costs aside, the voter, who earns hourly wages, would be required to apply for the election identification certificate in person. That means he would have to take time off from work, travel to the nearest Department of Public Safety office, and wait in line for hours to apply for EIC.
Unfortunately, at least 81 Texas counties don’t have a Department of Public Service office and at least 34 counties have DPS offices that are open only two days a week. “In at least one-third of Texas’s counties, would-be voters will have to travel out-of county merely to apply for an EIC,” the court ruling noted. This means that the prospective voter may have to travel between 100 to 125 miles to the nearest DPS office.
And since none of the DPS offices are opened on the weekends or past 6 p.m. on weekdays, it means that any hourly wage worker would have to take time off from work and lose income just to fill out an application to exercise the right to vote, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
In the end, obtaining a “free” election identification certificate could end up costing an American-born Hispanic voter between $41.50 to $116.50 in document fees, transportation, and lost wages (assuming he’s earning the minimum hourly wage of $7.25). That translates to about a half day or two full days of lost income for a minimum wage worker.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the estimated costs to obtain an election identification certificate for a minimum wage earner:
- Cost of obtaining birth certificate in Texas: $22
- Roundtrip travel time to DPS: 1 to 4 hours – lost wages: $7.25 to $29.00
- Wait time at DPS: 1 to 3 hours – lost wages: $7.25 to $21.75
- Gas costs (est. 20 mpg at $3.50/gallon): $35 to $43.75 – or bus fare (roundtrip with 2 transfers): $5
“Would-be voters who must take a day off work to travel to a distant driver’s license office have most certainly been exposed to burdens beyond those usually associated with voting. The same is likely true if prospective voters must pay a substantial amount of money to obtain a photo ID or wait in line for hours to get one. In some circumstances these heavy burdens could well discourage citizens from voting at all,” Tatel wrote. “A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote.”
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia: Texas v. Holder opinion – Aug. 30, 2012 (PDF)
- Justice.gov: Statement by Attorney General Eric Holder on Texas v. Holder (voter ID) decision – Aug. 30, 2012
- Justice.gov: Voting Rights
- Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott: Statement by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Voter ID Ruling
- Texas Legislature Online: History of SB14
- Texas Department of Public Safety: Drivers License Division Fees
- Cornell University Law School: 15th Amendment