Federal appeals court unanimously strikes down Texas’s voter ID law on narrow grounds

In a 3-0 decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans struck down Texas’s voter ID law earlier today, ruling that it violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

This is the same law that Hillary Clinton had cited in her voting rights speech in June as having been passed with “discriminatory intent,” referencing a lower court’s decision that also held that the law violated the VRA.

However, the federal appeals court that struck down the law today did so on narrower grounds than the lower courts had. While the lower courts had found that the law was passed with discriminatory intent, and that it amounted to a poll tax, the appeals court rejected both of these claims, and declined to address claims that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. They invalidated the law solely on the basis of its discriminatory effect.

Given the Supreme Court precedent set earlier this year in their ruling that protected the Fair Housing Act, discriminatory effect — also known as disparate impact — is reason enough to strike down a law as being unconstitutional. In expert testimony, the court found that Hispanic and African-American registered voters were 195% and 305% more likely (!) to lack valid ID under Texas’s law than white voters, respectively. The court also found that, while only 2.6% of voters with incomes ranging from $100,000 to $150,000 per year lacked necessary ID, 21.4% of registered voters making less than $20,000 per year were affected by the new ID requirements. On this evidence, along with additional qualitative evidence of discriminatory effects, the law failed the disparate impact test, and was therefore invalidated.

Voting rights protest, via Michael Fleshman / Flickr

Voting rights protest, via Michael Fleshman / Flickr

The ruling sets the stage for what will almost certainly be a Supreme Court battle over the constitutionality of voter ID laws. It also shows why voting rights would be made much, much more secure if we were to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing an affirmative right to vote, as I argued yesterday.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the law was passed with discriminatory intent because discriminatory intent is ridiculously difficult to prove. If a law is “facially neutral” with respect to race, i.e. it doesn’t explicitly denote racial groups in its text, then you need to find evidence of collusion or some other coordination — basically amounting to conspiracy — to prove that the law was designed with discrimination in mind.

The appeals court further rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the law constituted a poll tax because Texas, after oral arguments had already taken place, passed a separate law that compensated citizens for the costs of necessary documents. When the amending law passed, the law ceased to constitute a poll tax, despite the fact that the cost of acquiring said documents is often greater than the cost of the documents themselves.

With an affirmative right to vote codified in the Constitution, none of these claims would have mattered. The burden of proof would not have been on the plaintiffs to show that the law failed the disparate impact test, but rather on the state to show that there was a compelling state interest in passing a law that made it more difficult to vote in the first place. In other words, Texas would have had to prove both that voter fraud is having a significant effect on its elections, and that such fraud could be prevented by voter ID.

It would not have been able to show either of those things, and the court’s opinion could have been much shorter.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • bastalready

    SIIIXXXEEERRRSSS!!!!!

  • Buford

    I’ll state the obvious… I never understood how any of these Voter ID laws were able to get traction in the first place, since the whole premise for them is flawed.

    If the stated purpose is to ensure a more valid vote count, how is it better to eliminate even 100 fraudulent votes (not true, I know) by implementing a solution that disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of legal votes? Common sense dictates that a solution which risks even 101 legal votes to block 100 fraudulent votes would be a non-starter… since blocking one legal vote has the same impact as placing one fraudulent vote.

  • Oscar666

    And 100% of Texas voters named Governor Rick Perry had valid ID but couldn’t read it.

  • Oscar666

    Cool.

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  • Indigo

    Unanimously. It had to be narrowly defined for the court to be unanimous. I bet they’re howling like coyotes out there in the Republic of Tejas.

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