Texas’ new voter identification law fully absolves the state from having discriminated against minority voters in 2011, and courts should not take further action in a battle over the state’s old voter ID law, President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice argued in a legal filing Wednesday.
“Texas’s voter ID law both guarantees to Texas voters the opportunity to cast an in-person ballot and protects the integrity of Texas’s elections,” the filing stated.
Federal lawyers were referring to Senate Bill 5, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last month. It would soften a 2011 voter ID law — known as the nation’s most stringent — that courts have ruled purposefully burdened Latino and black voters. If allowed to take effect, the law would allow people without photo ID to vote if they present alternate forms of ID and sign affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.
“S.B. 5 addresses the impact that the Court found in [the previous law] by dramatically reducing the number of voters who lack acceptable photographic identification,” the justice department argued, adding that U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos should “decline any further remedies.”
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The filing came as Ramos is weighing whether SB 5 fixes legislative discrimination she and other courts have identified, and it highlighted Trump’s dramatic departure from his predecessor on voting rights issues.
Former President Obama’s Justice Department originally teamed up with civil rights groups against Texas throughout the long-winding legal battle over the ID law, known as Senate Bill 14. The civil rights groups argue SB 5 doesn't absolve lawmakers from intentionally discriminating against minority voters by passing the 2011 law and wouldn't properly accommodate those voters going forward.
Chad Dunn, a lawyer representing some of the challengers, said the reversal shows the Justice Department “simply has no more credibility in this litigation.”
“For six years, the Department of Justice stood on the side of voters arguing that Texas' unnecessary voter photo ID law was enacted with discriminatory intent, then after the new administration was sworn in, one of DOJ's first acts was to back out of the case,” Dunn said. “Every court to rule on the subject found Texas' law to be discriminatory, and Supreme Court precedent, which binds us all, including DOJ, requires Texas to go back to the drawing board in a non-discriminatory process if it wishes to mess with the right to vote.”
In February, lawyers for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ditched the Justice Department’s longstanding position that Texas lawmakers purposefully discriminated in 2011, but did not change its position that the law had a “discriminatory effect.”
Now, the Justice Department argues Texas’ new ID law “eradicates any discriminatory effect or intent” in the old law.
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Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have portrayed SB 5 as a good-faith effort to fix problems multiple federal judges identified in the 2011 law, calling on Ramos to consider the new law a valid remedy — without levying penalties on the state.
Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Senate Bill 14 disproportionately targeted minority voters who were less likely to have one of seven forms of identifications it required they show at the polls. Ramos upped the ante in April, ruling the state discriminated on purpose. Ramos was instructed to consider a remedy for the violations, and her ruling raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws — a process called preclearance.
Seeking to avoid that fate, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature enacted SB 5, frantically pushing it to the finish line in the final days of the legislative session. In doing so, state leaders made clear that it was aimed at pleasing the courts.
Ramos temporarily softened the ID rules for the 2016 elections, and the new law somewhat follows its lead.
Voters without photo ID would be able to present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. Those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a state felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail.
Under the law, Texans who own a qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver's license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.
Groups suing the state suggest the law wouldn’t a fully address the discrimination, but they say that question was moot. Ramos should wipe clean all elements of SB 14, they argue, returning Texas to a time when voter registration cards and other non-photo ID sufficed.
Read related Tribune coverage:
Texas' softer voter ID law doesn't fix the discrimination in the old measure, the state's legal opponents told a judge Wednesday. [Full story]