At first glance, Wednesday’s federal appeals court ruling on Texas’ voter ID law may seem straightforward: Senate Bill 14 discriminates against minority voters and violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act, the court ruled. But little has been simple in the five-year battle over the law.
Here is what you need to know about the major ruling and what's next.
What is the Texas voter ID law?
The 2011 law stipulates the types of photo identification election officials can accept at the polls. Under the law, most citizens (some, like people with disabilities, can be exempt) must show one of a handful of types of identification before their ballots can be counted: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. Citizens without those forms of ID may obtain an election identification certificate free of charge, but only if they present a birth certificate. The rules have been in effect since 2013.
Texas officials claim these rules prevent voter fraud, which Gov. Greg Abbott has called "rampant." But opponents — backed by court rulings— have pointed out that in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare. Evidence in the case showed only two convictions for such fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade before lawmakers crafted the law.
How would the rules discriminate against certain voters?
In its ruling, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed what a lower court found: that Texas’ unusually narrow list of acceptable forms of identification had a disproportionate impact on minority groups like Hispanics and African-Americans — those who are far less likely to have a qualifying ID or have the means to obtain one. For some people, even traveling to the nearest Department of Public Safety office can be difficult, evidence cited in the ruling showed.
Opponents did not argue that all state voter ID laws discriminated, but they convinced the majority that the one in Texas did.
So will SB 14 be scrapped for the November elections?
The court ruled that the law must be changed before the election, but it did not specify how. The judges kicked that decision to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi, instructing her to temporarily fix it, and to later weigh meatier issues and a more permanent fix.
What might the temporary fix look like?
That's not clear, though it’s obvious that Ramos doesn’t think much of the Texas law. In 2014, she struck it down in a 147-page ruling that said lawmakers intentionally discriminated in passing it — a constitutional violation. On Wednesday, the appeals court instructed Ramos to reconsider the evidence about intentionality, but gave her broad leeway to craft the immediate fix. “She can craft a remedy that effectively nullifies the law,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. That could include allowing voters who show up at the polls without photo ID to simply sign an affidavit attesting that they are who they say they are. “There’s likely to be further controversy,” Jones said.
On Thursday, Ramos set deadlines for each side to submit arguments on proposed remedies and offered broad guidance. If they ultimately disagree, she set arguments for Aug. 17.
Is the case heading to the U.S. Supreme Court?
Experts say the Texas case could be a prime candidate for the justices. But state leaders, who have lost every major decision in this battle, would face enormous obstacles in trying to persuade the Supreme Court to uphold the law as written.
Winning would be particularly difficult if the justices heard the case without a replacement for the late Antonin Scalia. Even if Texas persuaded four of the eight current justices to side with the state, that deadlocked ruling would simply allow the appeals court’s decision to stand.
All of this assumes that Texas will appeal to the Supreme Court. Attorneys for opponents of the law said Thursday that the state's lawyers indicated that they would not immediately appeal Wednesday's decision. Instead, they're waiting to see what Ramos does. A spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said she could not "confirm or deny anything at this time" related to plans to appeal.
Did Texas intentionally discriminate in passing the law?
In 2014, Ramos said so. But on Wednesday, the appeals court reversed that finding. Though some evidence "could support" that conclusion, Judge Catharina Haynes wrote for the majority, Ramos' overall findings were "infirm." The ruling instructed Ramos to reconsider the evidence.
Experts say that proving intentional discrimination against minorities is incredibly difficult. The impact of such a decision could be severe. A ruling affirming intentionality could land Texas back on the list of states needing federal approval before changing election laws. (A 2013 Supreme Court ruling sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list.)
Did Texas know that its laws would disproportionately affect certain voters?
Yes, according to rulings so far. Lawmakers "nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact,” Haynes wrote. “For instance, the Legislature was advised of the likely discriminatory impact by the Deputy General Counsel to the Lieutenant Governor and by many legislators, and such impact was acknowledged to be “common sense” by one of the chief proponents of the legislation.”
Texas probably would have avoided such intense scrutiny — and some pricey legal bills — if it had crafted the law similar to one in Indiana. That state has a much broader list of acceptable ID and exemptions for more people — such as those who are poor or in nursing homes. The U.S. Supreme Court approved that law in a 2008 decision.
Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.