A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Texas’s new version of its voter-ID law can go into effect, rebuking to a lower court judge for trying to block the law and delivering a significant victory to voter integrity advocates.
The original law passed earlier this decade had been blocked after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded both its purpose and effect was to punish minority voters.
But the state legislature went back and made changes, and the 5th Circuit, in a 2-1 ruling, now says the new version cures what had ailed the previous one.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hailed the ruling.
“The court rightly recognized that when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5 last session, it complied with every change the 5th Circuit ordered to the original voter ID law,” he said. “Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy.”
The new law includes a longer list of IDs that are acceptable for voting purposes, lets people use expired identification for even longer, and requires mobile dispensaries to dole out election identification documents to those who might not otherwise have a valid ID for voting purposes.
A lower court had ruled that because the original law was illegal, and the new version updates the old law, it doesn’t eliminate the original discrimination “root and branch.”
But Judge Edith H. Jones, writing for the appeals court majority, said the lower court overlooked the “obvious improvements” in the new law.
“To the contrary, all of the evidence supports that SB 5 was designed to remedy every defect claimed in the plaintiffs’ evidence and to supply indigent voter protections recommended by this court’s remand order,” she said.
Judge Jones was joined by Judge Patrick Higginbotham; both of whom were put on the court by President Ronald Reagan.
Judge James E. Graves Jr. wrote a dissent defending the lower court’s ruling and saying the updated law can still be judged based on the original, discriminatory law.
“Nothing cuts the thread of intent here. No passage of time cuts the thread,” wrote Judge Graves, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
Texas enacted its first version of the voter-ID law earlier this decade, and has been battling in the courts ever since. A federal court in the District of Columbia, first ruled in 2012 that the law would have a disparate impact on minority voters, and blocked it under the Voting Rights Act.
But after a Supreme Court ruling curtailed the pre-emptive reach of the Voting Rights Act, Texas moved ahead with its law.
A federal district judge in Texas, after a trial hearing evidence, ruled in 2014 that the law not only had a disparate impact on minorities, but that the law was written with the intent to discriminate. The 5th Circuit in 2016 agreed the law had a disparate impact, but sent the case back for more review about discriminatory intent.
Along the way the Justice Department, which had been battling Texas while Mr. Obama was in office, reversed itself under President Trump and now backed Texas.
A department spokesman said they were “pleased” with the latest ruling.
But the law’s opponents said they still see discrimination behind the state’s actions.
“Any law that silences people at the polls is not one that belongs in our democracy,” said Neil Steiner, a lawyer who worked on the case for the plaintiffs.