Texas’ other high-profile voting rights case — the challenge to the state’s voter ID law — finally gets its day in court on Tuesday.
The plaintiffs, who include Fort Worth Democratic Congressman Marc Veasey, will try to prove to a federal judge in Corpus Christi that Texas lawmakers passed a law that disproportionately hurt minorities’ ability to vote.
After several attempts in previous sessions, the Legislature in 2011 passed its voter ID law, which required those who show up in person to vote to present one of five forms of photo ID, such as a driver's license, passport or concealed handgun license. Lawmakers also passed a new set of legislative and congressional maps that year. The legal challenge to those maps has yet to be finalized.
Proponents of the voter ID law argued the intent was to combat voter fraud at the polling place. Furthermore, they argued that presenting photo ID is now commonplace in American life and, as such, did not represent a barrier to voting. Also, they pointed to polling that demonstrated broad-based support in Texas for a voter ID law.
To prove their case, the plaintiffs plan to present both statistical evidence to demonstrate the law’s discriminatory effect as well as testimony from at least a dozen registered voters who will say they were frustrated in their attempts to cast a ballot in person.
Gerald Hebert, an attorney representing some of the plaintiffs, said his side’s research found that about 750,000 Texans on the voter roll lack photo ID acceptable under the state’s voter ID law.
And, he added, the groups that tend most to lack ID are blacks and Latinos.
The reasons why registered voters don’t have photo ID vary, said Chad Dunn, another of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. Some, for instance, were not born in a hospital and don’t have a birth certificate to get identification documents.
The state, as part of the voter ID law, made available a new type of free photo ID to be used when voting in person. The state also severely discounted the fee for a copy of a birth certificate that would be needed to obtain that election ID.
The state will make the case that the plaintiffs don’t have evidence of voters who can’t obtain the needed free ID and can’t vote by mail, where photo ID would not be required.
They will also argue that since enactment of the law, the instance of voters running into problems because of the new ID requirements is “vanishing small,” according to court filings by the state.
Hebert said the 2011 version of the voter ID law contained fewer forms of ID that could be presented at the polling place. And he further argued that the plaintiffs will show that the forms of ID that made the final legislation further favored whites and disfavored minorities.
Hebert said that even a heavily discounted fee to obtain a copy of a birth certificate is a burden for some elderly voters and that a mail-in ballot is not an acceptable substitute for many voters who have cast a ballot at the same polling place for decades before implementation of the law.
The challenge to the voter ID law also became entangled with the ongoing challenges to parts of the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., refused to pre-clear the voter ID law. But the subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder from June 2013 removed the underpinnings of the pre-clearance provision of the VRA.
Because of that decision, Texas was allowed to implement the law while the current challenge is decided. Hebert said state leaders, such as Attorney General Greg Abbott, could have gone to the Legislature to have it rework the law to take into account the finding by the D.C. panel that the law had a discriminatory effect. Abbott instead took the Shelby County ruling as a green light to implement the law immediately, Hebert said.
The trial, because it will rely on the presentation of lots of data, is expected to take at least a couple of weeks, Hebert and Dunn said. An appeal of the ruling is almost a certainty, no matter who prevails in court.