Texas Election Maps to Be Debated After ID Law Rejected

The Texas districts from which voters will elect congressional and state representatives will be argued today before a three-judge panel, one day after the state’s law requiring voters to have photo identification was rejected by a different court in Washington.

The panel of three federal judges in San Antonio said in an order yesterday that they preferred using the interim maps for the November election. They said that unless voting rights activists persuaded them to act before the election, they intended to address specific discriminatory boundaries when the redistricting battle resumes “after all appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court have been exhausted.’’

The judges created the interim voter maps for use in Texas’s primary elections in May after voting rights groups challenged state-drawn districts as biased against minorities.

On Aug. 28, a federal court in Washington determined that voter boundaries created by Texas’s Republican-controlled legislature and backed by Republican Governor Rick Perry intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and black voters. That ruling came in a separate lawsuit through which Texas sought federal approval of its new maps under the Voting Rights Act, a step required of all states with a history of voting rights violations.

Photo ID Law

Yesterday, a Texas law requiring photo identification to vote was rejected by federal judges in Washington in a third case. The ruling by a special three-judge panel was the first time U.S. judges weighed in on the Obama administration’s effort to use the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to block a state from requiring photo ID to participate in an election. Texas is one of eight states that passed similar laws last year that Republicans said would prevent voter fraud and Democrats said were designed to suppress the vote for their party.

“The state of Texas enacted a voter ID law that -- at least to our knowledge -- is the most stringent in the country,” U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote in the decision. “It imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”

Tatel, appointed to the bench by Democratic President Bill Clinton, was joined by U.S. District Judges Rosemary Collyer and Robert Wilkins. Collyer was named by Republican President George W. Bush and Wilkins by Democratic President Barack Obama.

Texas is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act need approval to change election procedures either from the Justice Department or a special panel composed of district and circuit court judges in Washington.

Redistricting Plan

Earlier this week, a different three-judge panel found that the state’s redistricting plan, crafted by the Republican-controlled legislature, discriminated against Hispanics and blacks in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Collyer was on that panel as well.

Texas election officials had told the court they needed a ruling by the end of the month to be ready to enforce the law in November.

“Chalk up another victory for fraud,” Perry said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “Today, federal judges subverted the will of the people and undermined our effort to ensure fair and accurate elections.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, said the state will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, “where we are confident we will prevail.”

‘Integrity Safeguards’

The “decision is wrong on the law and improperly prevents Texas from implementing the same type of ballot integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana --and were upheld by the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement.

“This administration believes it should be easier for eligible citizens to vote and to register to vote,” Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said at a briefing. “We should not be imposing unnecessary obstacles or barriers to voter participation.”

At least five other states are awaiting decisions on the legality of new voter identification requirements passed by Republican-controlled legislatures.

South Carolina, whose law was blocked by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act, is currently in trial before federal judges in Washington with closing arguments scheduled for Sept. 24. Pennsylvania, Mississippi and New Hampshire are waiting to see whether the department will oppose their laws. Wisconsin is appealing a state court judge’s ruling that declared its voter-ID law unconstitutional.

Other States

The court’s ruling on the Texas law may help determine whether other states’ statutes can be enforced, Rick Hasen, an election law blogger and professor at the University of California, Irvine’s law school, said in an interview before the decision was issued.

Under the law Perry signed last year, voters who arrive at the polls lacking one of the specified forms of state or U.S.- issued photo IDs, would be given a provisional ballot. College or university IDs aren’t among the authorized documents. Permits to carry a concealed handgun are.

Those ballots would count only if voters bring an approved ID to the registrar’s office within six days of the election.

The law exempts mail-in ballots and voters with significant disabilities or religious objections to being photographed.

Trial Numbers

The Justice Department during a week-long trial on the Texas law in July said at least 1.4 million registered voters in the state lack any state-issued voter identification and those voters are disproportionately Hispanic and black.

“By blocking this law, the court reaffirmed the right of all people in this country to participate in our democracy,” Nancy Abudu, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said in an e-mailed statement. Her group represented Texas-based organizations and individuals in the case.

During the trial, lawyers for Texas argued that obtaining the required identification was a minor inconvenience and called the Justice Department’s number of affected voters “highly-inflated.” They accused the department of relying on a database analysis that didn’t examine whether its list of voters without ID included people who were dead or had moved out of state.

Texas also argued that the judges should look at studies of other states that imposed photo ID laws rather than data on Texas voters. Texas told the judges that social-science data showing that voter-ID laws didn’t reduce minority turnout in Georgia or Indiana “answers the ultimate question” regarding blacks and Hispanics in Texas.

‘Invalid, Irrelevant’

In yesterday’s ruling, the judges said that all the evidence presented by Texas “is some combination of invalid, irrelevant, and unreliable.”

They also said no one in the case submitted reliable evidence on the number of Texas voters who lack photo ID.

The burdens on voters in Texas to obtain the required ID are heavier than in Indiana, whose ID requirements were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008, Tatel said. Texans must apply for state ID at a public safety office while almost a third of Texas counties don’t have one, he said. During trial, state Senator Carlos Uresti testified that for some towns, the nearest office is about 100 to 125 miles away, according to the ruling.

“Even the most committed citizen, we think, would agree that a 200 to 250 mile round trip -- especially for would-be voters having no driver’s license -- constitutes a ’substantial burden’ on the right to vote,” Tatel said.

‘Working Poor’

He said such a “journey would be especially daunting for the working poor.”

The wait times at these offices, which aren’t open on weekends or beyond 6 p.m., can be as long as three hours, according to the ruling.

The poverty rate in Texas is 25.8 percent for Hispanics and 23.3 percent for blacks, compared with 8.8 percent for whites, according to U.S. Census data cited in the ruling.

“A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote,” Tatel said.

The judges said they didn’t decide whether the law was crafted with discriminatory purpose after finding that the requirements themselves were harmful to minority voters.

The case is Perez v. Perry, 5:11-cv-00360, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio). The Washington redistricting case is Texas v. U.S., 11-cv-01303, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington). The photo ID case is Texas v. Holder, 12-00128, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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