- Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr creative commons
In a Wednesday legal filing, representatives from the Trump Administration's DOJ specifically asked U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos to drop a prolonged case that accuses state lawmakers of intentionally passing a racist voter ID bill, arguing that a new Texas law "remedies" any issue with discrimination.
The feds are referring to Senate Bill 14, a measure originally pitched as a way to combat voter fraud, despite there being little evidence of voter identification fraud being a serious threat in Texas or the rest of the country. The bill established strict rules for what kind of ID you had to show before voting in Texas.
That law was quickly challenged by civil rights groups and joined by President Obama's DOJ, all of whom considered it a thinly-veiled attempt to suppress minority votes. It landed in Judge Ramos' Corpus Christi federal court, where she ruled against the state, saying Texas lawmakers had passed the bill with the "intent to discriminate." Lawmakers were well aware that black and Latino voters are less likely to have one of the seven state mandated forms of ID (like a driver's license, passport, or handgun license), she argued. Ramos compared it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax, a textbook example of racial disenfranchisement.
When the state appealed her decision to the federal Fifth Circuit court of appeals, the notoriously conservative appellate court agreed that SB 14 disproportionally impacted minority voters, but it dodged the idea that lawmakers intentionally discriminated in passing the bill. The appellate judges instead kicked the case back to Ramos' courtroom for a second ruling using tougher standards, after which she again charged the state with passing a "racially motivated" law. She now has the option to invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act that would require Texas gets federal approval before tweaking any future voting or election laws.
Wednesday's DOJ filing comes as Ramos considers Senate Bill 5, a revamped — and allegedly less racist — version of the voter ID bill lawmakers passed in 2011. The bill, hastily thrown together in the recent legislative session, loosens ID regulations by allowing voters who don't have an ID to sign an affidavit, affirming they are who they say they are, before voting.
Texas — and now the DOJ — says SB 5 will adequately "fix" the discriminatory effects of SB 14.
"As amended by SB 5, Texas’s voter ID law both guarantees to Texas voters the
opportunity to cast an in-person ballot and protects the integrity of Texas’s elections," the DOJ filing reads. But evidence from the recent election says otherwise.
In preparation for the November presidential election, Judge Ramos issued a temporary change to the state's voter ID law that allowed affidavits in lieu of IDs, just like SB 5. If a voter arrived to the polls without one of those seven required IDs, they could sign an affidavit explaining why they didn't have one and provide some type of alternative ID — like a voter registration card, or utility bill with their address on it. It wasn't a flawless fix.
Across Texas, registered voters who didn't bring their ID to the polls reported they were turned away by uninformed elections staffers, while other voters were handed pamphlets with misleading information on the current ID law. One woman in Denton County who tried to use the affidavit process was told by poll staffers that "losing her ID" was not a good enough reason. She wasn't allowed to vote. In Bexar County, enough voters reported ID misinformation at the polls that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the county election's department.
"Faced with a long line to enter the polling place, a voter without photo identification who hears from a poll worker walking the line that photo ID is required is at risk of leaving the polling place under the impression that she will not be allowed to vote," the lawsuit read.
There's no guarantee that SB 5 won't keep eligible voters from the polls, out of fear that they'll be turned away or be handed a confusing legal form to sign once they get there. Civil rights groups are the most concerned about SB 5's affidavit rules. The revamped law includes a heightened criminal penalty for voters who provide false information on their form: two years in jail.
"We're worried it will intimidate folks who truly have a good reason for not brining a photo ID," said Zenen Jaimes Perez, a spokesperson for the Texas Civil Rights Project. "They'll see the penalty on the form and think 'no, I don't want to deal with that,' and walk away without voting."
This filing comes after the DOJ announced it has removed itself in the Texas case in February. It's no surprise, however, since Trump's DOJ has elbowed itself into other Texas cases involving minority populations — like its strong support of the sweeping state bill that allows law enforcement to ask nearly anyone about their immigration status.
"This wasn't unexpected," said Chad Dunn, a Houston lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs in the case. "The Department of Justice made it clear on Donald Trump's election day where they stood."
The ultimate decision will be up to Ramos, who's expected to make a judgement by August 10. If she agrees with civil rights groups that no, SB 5 doesn't do enough to absolve Texas of its racially-charged lawmaking, it's likely Ramos will place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws. But what kind of oversight can we expect when the feds have already sided with the state? No one's quite sure.
"It's obviously of great concern if the federal government doesn't take voter rights seriously," Dunn said.
He said that should Texas' election laws be put under federal review, "it remains to be seen" how the Trump Administration will act. But the country always has a safety net in the judicial system.
"The courts will be standing by to uphold the Voting Rights Act," he said. "Ultimately, the courts will decide."