One of the last things the democratic process in Texas wants or needs just days before the start of voting in a major election is confusion about how that voting will be carried out.
But worse than that, the very last thing this process needs is for any qualified voters to be unfairly denied the full opportunity to cast a ballot.
Both concerns were cast to the forefront Thursday when a federal district judge in Corpus Christi declared the state’s strict voter ID law unconstitutional and said it must not be used in the Nov. 4 election.
Early voting starts a week from Monday.
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office said the state will immediately appeal the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and will seek an expedited ruling “to resolve this matter quickly to avoid voter confusion in the upcoming election.”
The confusion issue is important. But there’s no overlooking the part of the ruling from U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos that the law, approved by the Legislature in 2011, “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”
The 5th Circuit must weigh potential disenfranchisement of qualified voters heavily. It is the most important factor in the long history of legal battles since the Texas law was passed.
It’s not that all voter ID laws are wrong. In fact, 31 states have laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. The U.S. Supreme Court has approved some of the laws.
But states differ in many ways, particularly in geography and economic makeup.
And voter ID laws differ. The Texas law is stricter than most in its requirements for background documentation for new ID cards and in which kinds of already-issued cards are acceptable.
Texas Department of Public Safety offices will provide qualifying identification cards without a fee, but documentation (such as a birth certificate) required to get those cards is not free.
And up to a third of Texas’ 254 counties do not have a DPS office. Potential voters could therefore have to pay the cost of travel to the nearest office.
That means the law effectively imposes “an unconstitutional poll tax,” the judge wrote in her 147-page opinion.
She cited evidence that more than 600,000 registered voters lack sufficient ID under the law. The state has issued fewer than 300 free cards.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, is the lead plaintiff in the suit, which was combined with others, including an action brought by the U.S. Department of Justice. Gonzales Ramos heard testimony in a two-week trial in September.
Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law from being used in the November election.
Wisconsin’s situation is quite different from that in Texas.
The law there was also passed in 2011 but was only used briefly before a state court blocked it. It has been tied up in court ever since.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled just days ago, after lawmakers made changes, that the Wisconsin statute could go into effect. The Supreme Court cited the risk of voter confusion caused by implementing the law so late in the election cycle.
Texas put its law into effect last year after the Supreme Court struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that was the primary focus of earlier challenges.
Proponents of the voter ID law have said it has been used in several elections with no problems.
That’s overly optimistic. There’s no way of knowing how many potential voters were discouraged by the law and did not go to the polls.
Meanwhile, the judge in Corpus Christi found evidence of the law’s discriminatory effect to be convincing.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia made similar findings in 2012 during the earlier legal challenges.
That’s plenty of reason to worry about the law.
There’s also reason to worry about voter confusion. The prelude to this election so far has included the assumption that the voter ID law will be in effect.
But saying it won’t be, even this late in the game, won’t discourage any voters.