Judge orders Texas to rewrite voter ID materials

Attorney General Ken Paxton and Solicitor General Scott Keller speak after oral arguments on the voter ID case before the U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans on May 24, 2016.
Attorney General Ken Paxton and Solicitor General Scott Keller speak after oral arguments on the voter ID case before the U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals in New Orleans on May 24, 2016. The Texas Tribune

A federal judge has ordered the Texas secretary of state’s office to issue new voter education materials, siding with those who accused state officials of misleading voters about identification requirements for the November elections.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos on Tuesday ordered changes to certain press releases, posters placed at polling locations and materials on state websites related to voting in the Nov. 8 elections.

She is also requiring that “all materials related to the education of voters, poll workers, and election officials that have not yet been published shall reflect the language” of a prior court order allowing those who arrive at the polls without one of seven forms of photo identification required under state law to cast a ballot.

Ramos’ order came after the federal government and other groups challenging the state’s photo ID law — ruled discriminatory by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — accused Texas officials of circulating “inaccurate or misleading information” about a temporary fix she ordered for the upcoming election.

Though voters who possess photo identification are expected to bring it to the polls in November, those without it still have the opportunity to vote. They may sign an affidavit certifying they are U.S. citizens and present proof of residence, such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.

Ramos last month ordered Texas to spend $2.5 million to educate the public about these relaxed requirements.

That order said Texas must educate voters about “the opportunity for voters who do not possess” photo identification “and cannot reasonably obtain it to cast a regular ballot.”

But the U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs argued that Texas recast the language of that order by limiting voting to those with photo IDs or those who “have not obtained” and “cannot obtain” such identification.

The key difference, plaintiffs argued, was that Texas stripped the word “reasonably,” potentially discouraging those who could obtain photo identification only after surpassing significant hurdles.

Chad Dunn, a Houston-based attorney who represented groups suing the state, suggested the difference was more significant than it might initially sound.

“The fear is that somebody hears that can’t language and thinks: ‘I can drive to Arkansas and get my birth certificate, and I can get back today and get down to an office, and potentially get an ID issued — but I’d miss picking my kids up from school, and I’d miss an intolerable amount of income from work,” he said. “So I have an impediment for doing so, but I suppose it’s possible” to get a photo ID.

“It’s troubling that the state chose to use language in some of its advertisements that didn’t track exactly the court’s order,” Dunn added.

Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, said Tuesday that her office’s “No. 1 objective is and remains educating voters as clearly and efficiently as possible. We are prepared to respond to the order.”

In a 9-6 ruling in July, the federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ ID law, known as Senate Bill 14, violated the federal Voting Rights Act because black and Latino potential voters were less likely than others to possess ID from the narrowly drawn list of what’s acceptable at the polls.

Texas officials claim these rules prevent voter fraud, which Gov. Greg Abbott has called “rampant.” But opponents — backed by court rulings — have pointed out that in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare.

The appeals court ordered Ramos to draw up a temporary fix for the law, and later weigh more substantial issues such as whether Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority groups in passing the law.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, plans to appeal the July ruling this week to the U.S. Supreme Court, spokesman Marc Rylander told The Texas Tribune. Asked about Ramos’ latest order, he said his office was “pleased” that Ramos denied a motion from private plaintiffs to change the affidavit voters without ID must sign and that she decided some of the educational materials complied with her order.

“Our office still maintains the common-sense measures in Texas voter ID law are valid,” Rylander said.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — a Republican who co-authored Senate Bill 14 — called for lawmakers to pass new voter identification requirements next year.

“We have a judge, a Democrat, who’s just eviscerating our photo voter ID. We’re going to have to pass it again come January when we go back into session,” he said on the The Laura Ingraham Show.

It was not clear whether he meant lawmakers should pass less-stringent ID requirements that may be more likely to withstand legal scrutiny or an equally stringent measure.

Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request to comment.