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Analysis: A Texas Judge Takes Voter ID to Court

The only Democrat in an elected statewide post in Texas is suing to upend the state’s photo voter ID law, saying it’s an unconstitutional obstacle to a legal activity: voting.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Larry Meyers is shown in his office in 2013.

* Correction appended

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The only Democrat in elected statewide office in Texas is suing to upend the state’s photo voter ID law, saying it’s an unconstitutional obstacle to a legal activity: voting.

The rogue in question is Larry Meyers, who was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as a Republican in 1992 and re-elected in 1998, 2004 and 2010. At the end of 2013, he changed parties, irritated with the direction of his party and wanting to make a statement on his way out of office — if that’s where the switch takes him.

Meyers says he left the Republican Party “after the Tea Party takeover” and says the infighting within the GOP has only confirmed his decision.

He refers to his former political home as “the Donner Party,” after an infamous case of cannibalism among settlers in the 1840s. “They’re eating each other up,” he says.

Meyers filed his state lawsuit in October 2014, while another legal challenge to the state’s voter ID law was pending in federal court in Corpus Christi. A federal judge overturned the law, but it has remained in effect during the state's appeals to higher courts.

Meanwhile, state and local officials in Texas tried to get Meyers’ challenge dismissed. A Dallas trial judge — former state lawmaker Dale Tillery, a Democrat — refused that request. Now those officials are asking the state’s 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas to toss it. That hearing is set for Tuesday.

Meyers refers to his former political home as 'the Donner Party,' after an infamous case of cannibalism among settlers in the 1840s. 'They’re eating each other up.'

Meyers is lapping this up. His challenge is the sort of technical thing you would expect from a long-time judge. He points to this sentence in the Texas Constitution (emphasis added): “In all elections by the people, the vote shall be by ballot, and the Legislature shall provide for the numbering of tickets and make such other regulations as may be necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box; and the Legislature shall provide by law for the registration of all voters.”

“It does not include ‘prevent,’” he says, adding that the voter ID law is “a prior restraint against your constitutional right to vote.”

As he put it in his original filing, the voter ID law forces voters to prove they are innocent before they cast their ballots rather than requiring the state to prove that someone is actually guilty of voter fraud once they have voted. Someone who doesn’t have the required identification “will be denied his right to vote and will be presumed to be guilty of voter fraud,” he wrote.

Proponents of the voter ID law say it’s no more burdensome than presenting identification in routine commercial transactions, and say the law has built-in workarounds for people who don’t have drivers’ licenses to show voting officials.

Meyers contends that the state’s effort to prevent voter fraud — he doesn’t think such fraud exists in any serious way — creates an obstacle to voting that does more harm than good. Voter fraud is already illegal, he points out, and the state can and should prosecute it whenever it occurs.

“We’re just asking that our Constitution be enforced,” he says. “Voter ID is almost identical to what the old poll tax was. ... It suppresses the vote.”

In its legal filings, the state argues that Meyers doesn’t have grounds to sue because he hasn’t shown how he the voter ID law has done him any harm. Those state lawyers also contend that the law does not add to the “qualifications” of voters but is more akin to other requirements, like when the polls are open or when elections are held.

The timing of this appeal worked out pretty well for Meyers, who is up for re-election in November — the first time he has faced a Republican while running for reelection as a Democrat. He filed his lawsuit in October 2014, and Judge Tillery declined to dismiss the case last August. The looming appeal hearing, and the decision that will follow, could raise his profile a little bit in the months leading up to what is probably his final appearance on the ballot, whatever the result.

And after switching to the party that hasn’t won a statewide election in two decades, he knows he faces long odds.

“I wasn’t going to run again. I was ready to retire,” Meyers says. “I wouldn’t mind winning, though.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the outcome of legal challenges to the voter ID law; it was overturned by a federal judge but has remained in effect while appeals proceed. Also, an earlier version did not make it clear that this is the first time Meyers has run for reelection as a Democrat, although he ran and lost a bid for Texas Supreme Court as a Democrat in 2014.

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Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals Texas Democratic Party Voter ID