The battle over voter ID laws

A panel of judges throws out Texas' strict new rule, saying it would disproportionately hurt low-income, minority voters. Why are these GOP-backed laws so controversial?

A federal court wasn't persuaded by the evidence Texas provided to show its voter ID law doesn't discriminate against low-income black and Latino voters.
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A federal court has blocked Texas' voter ID law, delivering a blow to Republican lawmakers who are pushing similar legislation in several states. The court says the Texas regulations requiring voters to show photo identification violates the 1964 Voting Rights Act because it would impose "strict, unforgiving burdens" on poor minority voters who might have a hard time securing ID cards. Earlier in the week, the state's legislature was scolded by another federal court ruling that said the Lone Star State's congressional redistricting plan was crafted to limit the influence of Latino voters. Texas' Republican attorney general, Gregg Abbott, vowed to appeal the latest decision, saying the three-judge panel is unfairly preventing Texas from taking measures to stamp out voter fraud. Why are voter ID laws so controversial? Here, a brief guide:

What does the Texas voter ID law say?

It requires voters to get an official state ID, with a photo, so they can prove to poll workers that they are, in fact, who they say they are. The hitch: Anyone who didn't already have one of five forms of government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or a passport, would have to travel to a state Department of Public Safety office and get an election ID card. The cards are free, but to get one, voters have to prove their identity. In some cases, that would mean coughing up $22 for a certified copy of a birth certificate. Some people would have to skip work and travel as much as 250 miles roundtrip to get to a state office that hands out the IDs.

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Why was the law overturned?

Texas, as a state with a history of voter intimidation and discrimination, has to clear any changes to its voting laws with a federal court to prove it's not endangering minority voting rights. The judges found that the evidence Texas provided to show that its ID law didn't discriminate against low-income black and Latino voters was "unpersuasive, invalid, or both." Civil rights activists say the Texas law, signed by Gov. Rick Perry (R) last year, would have prevented as many as 1.5 million people from voting in November. Those affected would be overwhelmingly poor, and in Texas, blacks and Latinos, groups that lean heavily Democratic, are more likely than whites to be poor. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had blocked the law in March, likening it to the "poll tax" fees that disenfranchised many black voters in the Jim Crow South.

What will Texas do now?

Texas is vowing to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, and legal experts say Texas will probably request an emergency injunction that would allow it to enforce the law in the November election. That could put the Roberts court on the spot, University of California-Irvine election-law specialist Rick Hasen tells The Washington Post, forcing it to decide "a major question" in short order. Attorney General Abbott says it's unfair for the judges to prevent Texas from "implementing the same type of ballot integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana — and were upheld by the Supreme Court."

Are other states trying this, too?

Yes. Just like Texas, Florida recently saw its voter ID law thrown out. A state court in Pennsylvania, which doesn't need federal approval because of its cleaner record on voting rights, upheld that state's voter ID law last month. Wisconsin last week asked its state Supreme Court to lift two injunctions so it can impose its new ID rules in November. South Carolina has imposed similar rules, but it's subject to federal oversight and the Justice Department is blocking its new requirements, saying they would put a disproportionate burden on minority voters. The state is fighting the decision in court.

Are voter ID laws really unfair?

No, says Rob Port at Say Anything Blog. It's ridiculous to say that "a law which imposes the same identification requirement on all Americans is somehow discriminatory." Well, "election fraud is real," says Lawrence Frolik at Jurist, but random individuals casting illegal ballots aren't going to swing an election. It's just too rare. But voter ID laws that disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people could have a big effect. Indeed, "Republicans in Texas and Florida have been in the vanguard of the pernicious, widespread efforts to suppress voting by Hispanics and blacks," says The New York Times in an editorial. This is a reincarnation of "racist laws" that disenfranchised millions before the Voting Rights Act was passed, and it must be stopped.

Sources: The Huffington Post, Jurist, The New York Times (2), Say Anything Blog, The Washington Post

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