Continuing to protect a voter identification law that courts say discriminates against Hispanics and African Americans, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked a full federal appeals court to hear his arguments about why the state’s requirements at the polls do not violate the Voting Rights Act.
In a series of filings Friday, the Republican asked the full U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case, weeks after the court’s three-judge panel ruled that the four-year-old law has a “discriminatory effect” that violates the federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
“Plaintiffs point to no person, and certainly no named plaintiff, whose right to vote will be denied or even substantially burdened by maintaining the status quo" while the legal battle continues, Paxton argued.
Paxton also asked the court to keep the law intact for the next election, prolonging a long-winding legal battle that could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The law requires most citizens (some, like people with disabilities, can be exempt) to show one of a handful of forms of allowable photo identification before their election ballots can be counted. Acceptable forms include a state driver's license or ID card that is not more than 60 days expired at the time of voting, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. The acceptable list is shorter than any other state’s.
Gov. Rick Perry signed the law in 2011, kick-starting its convoluted journey through the federal court system.
The state's new rules didn't take effect until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer automatically needed advance federal approval when changing election laws.
Earlier this month, a 5th Circuit panel unanimously ruled that the law – Senate Bill 14 – discriminated against minorities and other voters less likely to have certain forms of identification (though it disagreed with a lower court, which had called the law an unconstitutional “poll tax”).
For now, the law is still on the books.
Plaintiffs, which include minority rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice, want the case sent back to the lower court, to decide how Texas could fix its law for the next election.
In a filing last week, plaintiffs suggested adding voter registration certificates to the list of acceptable ID.
“The order could also direct that, consistent with current practice, county registrars should make replacement registration certificates freely and readily available to registered voters who seek them and whose registration certificates are lost or destroyed,” they wrote.
But on Friday, Paxton asked the court for the full 5th Circuit to hear the case, arguing that the panel erred in several respects. He also said that changing the law before the next election would “only generate more confusion.”
Experts say that more than 600,000 Texans lack such identification, though not all of them have necessarily tried to vote. Those citizens can obtain “election identification certificates” free of charge, but must present a copy of their birth certificate.
Searching for and obtaining copies of birth certificates can cost $2 to $47. That’s partly why the law’s opponents – supported by the lower court's ruling – called Texas’ law a poll tax, outlawed by 14th and 24th Amendments to the Constitution.
Texas lawmakers sought to address this issue during the last legislative session, however, passing Senate Bill 983, which allows Texans to obtain birth certificates free of charge – if they specify that it’s for an election ID.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law after Ramos ruled and after oral arguments in the 5th Circuit case, in which one judge sounded perplexed that lawmakers had not already made the law more palatable to critics.