AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Texas' strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities and the poor and must be weakened before the November elections, a federal appeals court ruled, following claims that at least a half-million registered voters could have struggled to cast a ballot.
The Wednesday ruling was a striking election-year victory for President Barack Obama's administration, which took the unusual step of bringing the U.S. Justice Department into Texas to fight the case. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the ruling affirmed that the 2011 law — which Texas enforced in three elections — abridged the right to vote based on race or color.
Republicans were dealt a second blow in as many days to a new breed of strict voter ID measures that limits the kind of photo identifications that are valid. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that residents without a photo ID in that state will still be allowed to vote in November.
Elections experts widely agree that the Texas law, which accepted concealed handgun licenses but not college IDs, was the toughest in the nation.
Voters must still show identification at the polls in Texas under the decision by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is regarded as one of the most conservative panels in the country. But a lower court is now instructed to devise a way for Texas to accommodate those who cannot.
"It's a great day for civil rights across America, and it's a critically important achievement for voters throughout Texas who have as of late been routinely mistreated by state leaders," said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who helped represent a team of Democrats and minority rights groups that challenged the law.
The 9-6 decision agreed with a lower court ruling that Texas had violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Elections experts have testified that Hispanics were twice as likely and blacks three times more likely than whites to lack an acceptable ID under the law. They also said lower-income Texas residents were more likely to lack necessary documents to obtain a free state voting ID.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed disappointment and must now work with opponents on putting a Band-Aid on the law with less than four months until Election Day.
"It is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety," Paxton said in a statement.
More than 30 states require some form of voter identification. But only about nine states, including Texas and Wisconsin, were considered to have especially restrictive laws before this week.
The decision could also have even broader ramifications: Aside from fixing the law for now, the court also ordered a later re-evaluation of whether Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in pursuing the law. If a court ultimately finds that was the case, Texas could be punished and ordered to seek federal approval before changing future voting laws, Dunn said.
More than 600,000 Texas voters — or 4.5 percent of all registered voters in the state — lacked a suitable ID under the law that was signed by then-Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a lower court found in 2014.
In a dissenting opinion, other judges warned that Wednesday's ruling will "backfire."
"This decision will thus foster cynicism about the courts and more rather than less racial tension. Lawmakers at every level will be forced to be race-conscious, not race-neutral, in protecting the sanctity of the ballot and the integrity of political processes," they wrote.
The law required Texas residents to show one of seven forms of approved identification. The state and other supporters say the law prevents fraud, while opponents say there are few cases of voter fraud. Wednesday's decision came after a three-judge panel ruled last year that the law violated the Voting Rights Act, and Texas appealed.
Lawyers for Texas have argued that the state makes free IDs easy to obtain. They said any inconveniences or costs involved in getting one do not substantially burden the right to vote, and that the Justice Department and other plaintiffs had failed to prove that the law resulted in denying anyone that right.
Opponents countered that trial testimony indicated various bureaucratic and economic burdens associated with the law — for instance, the difficulty in finding and purchasing a proper birth certificate to obtain an ID. A court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union cited testimony in other voter ID states indicating numerous difficulties faced by people, including burdensome travel and expenses to get required documentation to obtain IDs.