Texas Voter-ID Law Allowed by U.S. Supreme Court

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A divided U.S. Supreme Court let Texas enforce a voter-identification law that a federal trial judge said was aimed at reducing black and Hispanic turnout.

Nine days after halting Wisconsin’s voter-ID law, the justices refused to take the same step with a Texas measure that civil rights groups call the strictest in the nation. Rejecting arguments by President Barack Obama’s administration, the high court left intact an intermediate court order that let the voter-ID requirement take effect. The majority gave no explanation, and three justices dissented.

The order boosts Republican-led efforts to put new photo-ID requirements in force for the Nov. 4 election. Republicans say the measures are needed to prevent polling-place fraud, something that Democrats say rarely occurs.

“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 Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for herself and Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Texas can now use the ID law in its early balloting, which starts tomorrow. State Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is leading the legal defense of the voter-ID law, is on the ballot as the Republican nominee for governor. Abbot leads Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis by about 11 percentage points in the latest average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.

Ginsburg’s seven-page dissent delayed release of the order, which the court issued at about 5 a.m. yesterday in Washington.

‘Draconian’ Law

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said in her Oct. 9 ruling that more than 500,000 registered voters -- including a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics -- lacked any of the seven government-issued IDs that would be accepted under the new Texas law.

Ramos concluded that lawmakers intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. She said the “Draconian” law violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.

A three-judge federal appellate panel in New Orleans blocked the ruling, pointing to “the importance of maintaining the status quo on the eve of an election.”

The decision “means hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in Texas will be unable to participate in November’s election because Texas has erected an obstacle course designed to discourage voting,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “This is an affront to our democracy.”

Acquiring IDs

Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott, said Texas “remains confident that the district court’s misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits.”

Bean pointed to a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that upheld an Indiana voter-ID law. “The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter-ID laws are a legal and sensible way to protect the integrity of elections,” Bean said in a statement.

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, much of the dispute centered on which outcome would be more disruptive: requiring hundreds of thousands of Texans to acquire photo IDs or retraining poll workers who were preparing to enforce the new law.

Civil rights groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, argued that “it will be next to impossible for these Texas voters” to acquire the needed IDs before the election.

Status Quo

Abbott said Ramos’s order “would have upended the status quo for an election that is already well under way.” He added that her conclusion that a half million voters might be disenfranchised was “preposterous.”

The Texas measure, enacted in 2011, wasn’t enforced at first because of a Voting Rights Act requirement that states with a history of discrimination get federal approval for any election-rule changes. A three-judge panel refused to clear the revision.

The Supreme Court last year freed states from that requirement, rolling back a central part of the Voting Rights Act. Abbott then said the Texas law would take effect immediately. That prompted the Justice Department and civil rights groups to sue.