AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A federal appeals court declared that Texas’ strict 2011 voter ID law has a “discriminatory effect” on minorities and violates the Voting Rights Act. But the three-judge panel’s unanimous, 49-page decision also overturned a lower court’s previous assertion that the law amounted to an unconstitutional “poll tax.” Here’s a closer look at the Wednesday ruling, the law and where the case stands now.
WHAT DOES THE RULING MEAN?
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans found that Texas’ law requiring residents to show state-approved IDs in order to cast ballots violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a 50-year old federal statute prohibiting discrimination against minorities. Its ruling followed a decision last year by the lower, Corpus-Christi-based U.S. District Court that likened the law to an unconstitutional “poll tax” that could require some poor Texans to pay to vote because of fees associated with obtaining necessary IDs. The ruling Wednesday rejected the “poll tax” finding since Texas has taken steps to allow residents to receive IDs for free. But it upheld the lower court’s assertion that the effect of the law was nonetheless discriminatory.
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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The case returns to the U.S. District Court, which will have to decide whether the Texas Legislature intended to discriminate against minority voters when it drafted and passed the law. Opponents of voter ID cheered Wednesday’s ruling as a victory — albeit a narrow one. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who defended the law in court as state attorney general before becoming governor in January, vowed that “Texas will continue to fight for its voter ID requirement to ensure the integrity of elections.”
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE VOTER ID LAW?
Approved by the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature in 2011, the law requires voters to show one of seven approved forms of photo ID in order to vote, with or without a voter registration card. Permissible IDs include a Texas driver’s license, U.S. passport, state-issued ID card, Texas concealed handgun license or a U.S. military ID.
WHERE DOES THE LAW STAND NOW?
The 2014 district court ruling struck down Texas’ voter ID law, but it came just days before the November election. To avoid confusion, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that elections should go forward under the law, and it remains enforced today. Texas, meanwhile, appealed the District Court decision to the 5th Circuit, prompting Wednesday’s ruling. Even with the case ongoing, Texas has now conducted three statewide elections under the voter ID law. While there have been anecdotal reports of confusion, there were not widespread issues with voters being unable to cast ballots because they lacked proper identification.
HOW DID THE COURT CASE AGAINST THE LAW BEGIN?
Advocates and legal experts sued in federal court, arguing that Texas was deliberately discriminating against poor, largely minority voters by placing an undue burden with the ID requirement. The Obama administration subsequently joined the case, further arguing that the law was discriminatory. It was initially blocked after a ruling that it could violate the Voting Rights Act. But Texas was allowed to implement the ID requirements after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down Section 5 of the act, which had required nine mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination to seek approval before changing election laws. Still, Wednesday’s ruling found that, Section 5 aside, the law nonetheless met the higher legal threshold of violating the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 — which requires proving that it discriminated against minority voters.