WASHINGTON — A voting rights bill introduced in Congress last week would subject Texas elections to new levels of federal scrutiny, but it would not invalidate the state’s controversial 2011 voter photo ID law that helped inspire it.
The federal measure is designed to restore and improve protections to minority voters granted by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, provisions that were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013. The ruling found that key sections of the act unfairly targeted southern states and did not reflect current conditions.
Since the court’s decision, several states — notably Texas — have begun enforcing laws that voting rights activists have called discriminatory against African-Americans, Hispanics, the elderly and the poor.
“Texas is a state that we think, in comparison to other states that have passed similar laws, is especially draconian in placing limitations on voters,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
But prominent Texas Republicans have defended the voter ID law, arguing that it is a successful deterrent to voter fraud. On Thursday, former Gov. Rick Perry called the notion that the law was designed to disenfranchise voters “a false assumption."
"That’s not what this is about at all, this is the protection of a very, very important right in this country — that’s the right to vote, and to keep that from being fraudulently used,” said Perry, who is running for president in 2016 and was speaking at the National Press Club in Washington.
The federal proposal would require Texas and 12 other states mostly located in the South to get federal approval for any changes to statewide voting laws or procedures, including redistricting, the printing of bilingual voting materials and the implementation of photo identification laws. Introduced in the Senate by Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and in the House by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the bill also would authorize the U.S. attorney general to dispatch federal poll watchers to any suspect voting locations.
Civil rights advocates in Texas said that the bill wouldn’t do what they really want: cancel out the effects of the state's voter photo ID law.
But Chad Dunn, an attorney who filed a lawsuit against the Texas voter ID law in 2014 and won a federal injunction against it that was later overturned, said any oversight is better than nothing.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction because it reflects common interests," he said. "And it would make a world of difference in Texas."
Under the Leahy-Lewis measure, a state would have to have 15 or more voting violations in the last 25 years to be subject to federal oversight. If a state went 10 years without a violation, the scrutiny would end.
According to figures from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an equal rights organization, Texas has had 164 such violations since 1990, the highest number in the country; Louisiana placed second with 85.
“Texas is a breeding ground for discriminatory voting practices,” said J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for voting rights and campaign finance reform. “They seem to lead the way.”
There have been attempts to overturn the Texas voter ID law. Dunn’s lawsuit resulted in U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos issuing an injunction to block it, saying it placed “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.”
But an appeals court later lifted that injunction. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether the law should stand.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, whose district comprises sections of inner-city Houston, is a co-sponsor of the House version of the bill. She said the state’s voter ID law has caused Texas to “unfortunately go backwards when it comes to people’s right to vote.”
Asked whether House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, would schedule a hearing on the House’s version of the bill, a House judiciary aide said in an email, “The Voting Rights Act is alive and well and protecting the freedom to vote.”
Both of Texas’ Republican senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Neither they nor the committee chairman, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, responded to requests for comment on this story.
Advocates for the bill noted that previous iterations of it did have some Republican support, though they acknowledged the current version has no GOP co-sponsors.
“It will be a tough time, but we will work enthusiastically,” Jackson Lee said. “I hope Congress will not be concerned about who is voting, but that everyone has the right to vote.”
The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.