On Saturday, October 18, a majority of Supreme Court Justices, without providing reasons for their decision, rejected an emergency request from the Justice Department and from civil right groups to prohibit the state from requiring that voters produce certain forms of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. This interim decision was likely made in response to the quickly approaching early voting period, which began on Monday, October 20. Just a week before the Supreme Court’s decision, a U.S. District Court Judge in Corpus Christi had struck down the voter ID law following a nine-day trial. It currently awaits review by the Fifth Circuit, which put the trial judge’s decision on hold.
The ID law, enacted in 2011, was passed with the stated intention of preventing voter fraud, a problem with which the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says Texas’s electorate has had no prior experience. Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act, which was effectively eliminated by the Supreme Court in the June 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, had effectively blocked the Texas law. The Act aimed to prevent several states with a history of discrimination, including Texas, from changing election laws without permission. With its elimination, however, Texas officials are now able to enforce the voter ID law. Eric Holder Jr. released a statement this past Saturday in which he stated that, during its nine-day trial, the Federal Court had already determined that the law “was designed to discriminate”.
Under the voter ID law, there are only seven approved forms of ID, which include concealed handgun licenses, state drivers license, military ID, or passports. College IDs are not accepted, although this is a common practice in other states. At the federal court level, the judge found that this law would exclude approximately 600, 000 voters, many of them black or latino, from voting. The U.S. District Judge called it an “unconstitutional burden on the right to vote”.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented. In a scathing, six-paged dissent, Justice Ginsburg warned that, “The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”
Justice Ginsburg also explained how the cost of obtaining the required ID was an unconstitutional barrier to voting: “A voter whose birth certificate lists her maiden name or misstates her date of birth may be charged $37 for the amended certificate she needs to obtain a qualifying ID”. “For some voters”, Justice Ginsburg states, “the imposition is not small”.
The Court did not deal with the issue of the law’s constitutionality during its decision to not intervene. It therefore remains quite likely that the case will return to the Supreme Court after the Federal Court of Appeals passes a decision.
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