Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Texas should require photo voter identification in this year’s general election, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, overturning an earlier ruling by a federal district judge in Texas.
"This is not a run-of-the-mill case; instead, it is a voting case decided on the eve of the election," the appeals court judges wrote. "The judgment below substantially disturbs the election process of the State of Texas just nine days before early voting begins. Thus, the value of preserving the status quo here is much higher than in most other contexts."
The plaintiffs — including the Campaign Legal Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Tuesday's ruling.
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The state's voter ID law, passed in 2011, took effect last year. But a U.S. district judge in Corpus Christi ruled last week that the law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose. The Court further holds that SB 14 constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”
That judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, ordered the state to conduct the current election as if the voter ID law had not taken effect. That’s the part of the ruling that was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court Tuesday afternoon.
“On Saturday, October 11 — just nine days before early voting begins and just 24 days before Election Day — the district court entered a final order striking down Texas’s voter identification laws,” the appeals court said in its order. "By this order, the district court enjoined the implementation of Texas Senate Bill 14 of the 2011 Regular Session, which requires that voters present certain photographic identification at the polls. The district court also ordered that the State of Texas instead implement the laws that were in force before SB 14’s enactment in May of 2011. Based primarily on the extremely fast-approaching election date, we STAY the district court’s judgment pending appeal."
That general election is set for Nov. 4; early voting in Texas starts on Monday, Oct. 20.
"We are pleased that the appeals court has unanimously agreed that Texas’ voter ID law should remain in effect for the upcoming election, which is the right choice in order to avoid voter confusion," said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Greg Abbott. "The State will continue to defend the voter ID law and remains confident that the district court’s misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter ID laws are a legal and sensible way to protect the integrity of elections."
Texas Secretary of State Nandita Berry — the state's top election official — said in a statement that the general election will proceed according to plan. “Today the court issued a stay that means photo ID requirements will continue to be in effect for the November 4 Election, just as they have been for the last three statewide elections," she said. "Voters should prepare, as many already have, to show one of seven approved forms of photo ID if they plan to vote in person. ”
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One of the three judges who ordered the stay — Gregg Costa — did so only because of recent decisions that favor order in elections over the laws in question.
“The district court issued a thorough order finding that the Texas voter ID law is discriminatory,” he wrote. “We should be extremely reluctant to have an election take place under a law that a district court has found, and that our court may find, is discriminatory. ... I agree with Judge [Edith Brown] Clement that the only constant principle that can be discerned from the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in this area is that its concern about confusion resulting from court changes to election laws close in time to the election should carry the day in the stay analysis.”
The plaintiffs will go to the U.S. Supreme Court to attempt to block the use of the state’s voter ID law.
“While the Fifth Circuit's decision in no way reaches the merits of this case, it places in harm's way the votes and voices of more than 600,000 registered voters, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, who will be denied access to the fundamental right to vote in this election,” said Ryan P. Haygood, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “We are confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will block the enforcement of the law for upcoming elections. All of Texas’ citizens deserve to have their voices heard in this election.”
Gerry Hebert, an attorney for the Campaign Legal Center, said the court would have caused less disruption to the election by leaving the voter ID law unenforced. "It would have been relatively easy, if the injunction had been allowed to remain in effect, for Texas to avoid any confusion by simply announcing to all poll officials and voters that the IDs that Texas voters have been using for the last twenty years (including photo IDs) would be permissible IDs in the upcoming election," he said. "We intend to appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court immediately."