Appeals court: Texas voter ID law discriminates; orders fix

An election official checks a voter's photo identification at an early voting polling site in February 2014 in Austin, Texas. A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Texas' strict voter-ID law discriminates against minorities and the poor and must be scrubbed of those effects quickly before the November 2016 election.
Eric Gay ~ Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas' strict voter-ID law discriminates against minorities and the poor and must be weakened before the November elections, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, following claims at least a half-million registered voters could have struggled to cast a ballot.

The ruling was an election-year victory for President Barack Obama's administration, which took the unusual step of bringing the U.S. Justice Department into Texas to fight the case.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the ruling affirmed the 2011 law -- which Texas enforced in three elections -- abridged the right to vote based on race or color.

Republicans were dealt a second blow in as many days to a new breed of strict voter-ID measures that limits the kind of photo identifications that are valid.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled residents without a photo ID in that state still will be allowed to vote in November.

Elections experts widely agree the Texas law, which accepted concealed handgun licenses but not college IDs, was the toughest in the nation.

Voters still must show identification at the polls in Texas under the decision by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, regarded as one of the most conservative panels in the country.

But a lower court is instructed to devise a way for Texas to accommodate those who cannot.

"It's a great day for civil rights across America, and it's a critically important achievement for voters throughout Texas who have as of late been routinely mistreated by state leaders," said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who helped represent a team of Democrats and minority-rights groups that challenged the law.

The 9-6 decision agreed with a lower court ruling that Texas had violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

Elections experts have testified Hispanics were twice as likely and blacks three times more likely than whites to lack an acceptable ID under the law.

They also said lower-income Texas residents were more likely to lack necessary documents to obtain a free state voting ID.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed disappointment and now must work with opponents on putting a Band-Aid on the law with less than four months until Election Day.

"It is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety," Paxton said in a statement.

More than 30 states require some form of voter identification. But only about nine states, including Texas and Wisconsin, were considered to have especially restrictive laws before this week.

The decision could also have even broader ramifications: Aside from fixing the law for now, the court ordered a later re-evaluation of whether Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in pursuing the law.

If a court ultimately finds that was the case, Texas could be punished and ordered to seek federal approval before changing future voting laws, Dunn said.

More than 600,000 Texas voters -- or 4.5 percent of all registered voters in the state -- lacked a suitable ID under the law that was signed by then-Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a lower court found in 2014.

In a dissenting opinion, other judges warned Wednesday's ruling will "backfire."

"This decision will thus foster cynicism about the courts and more rather than less racial tension. Lawmakers at every level will be forced to be race-conscious, not race-neutral, in protecting the sanctity of the ballot and the integrity of political processes," they wrote.

The law required Texas residents to show one of seven forms of approved identification.

The state and other supporters said the law prevents fraud, while opponents say there are few cases of voter fraud.

Wednesday's decision came after a three-judge panel ruled last year the law violated the Voting Rights Act, and Texas appealed.