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An Unconstitutional Burden on the Right to Vote

An explanation of Trial Court’s decision in the Texas Photo ID case.

  • Jennifer L. Clark
October 17, 2014
On Octo­ber 9, 2014, United States District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos issued an opin­ion strik­ing down Texas’s photo ID law, stat­ing it is “openly under­stood to be ‘the strict­est photo ID law in the coun­try.’” In a thor­ough and force­ful 143-page decision, the Court found that the law was passed with the intent to discrim­in­ate against African Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos, and that it has the effect of doing so, because minor­ity voters in Texas are less likely to have the requis­ite ID than white voters, and face higher obstacles in obtain­ing it. The Court also found that the law places an uncon­sti­tu­tional burden on the right to vote, and amounts to a poll tax, in viol­a­tion of the 24th Amend­ment.
The Law Is Inten­tion­ally Discrim­in­at­ory
A voting law that is passed with the intent of discrim­in­at­ing on the basis of race viol­ates the 14th and 15th Amend­ments, as well as the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Court held that Texas passed SB 14 at least in part with the goal of disen­fran­chising Lati­nos and African Amer­ic­ans, mark­ing the first time that a federal court has made such a find­ing about a photo ID law.
In making this find­ing, the Court noted that Texas has a “long history of discrim­in­at­ory voting prac­tices.” This history stretches back decades and contin­ues into the present—and includes all-white primary elec­tions, poll taxes, voter purges, and discrim­in­at­ory district line draw­ing. As the Court noted, in “every redis­trict­ing cycle since 1970, Texas has been found to have viol­ated the VRA with racially gerry­mandered districts.”
The Court also found that the strange proced­ural history of the law provided evid­ence of its discrim­in­at­ory purpose. Every year that the Texas legis­lature considered photo ID legis­la­tion, “the bill spon­sors made each bill increas­ingly harsh.” Despite well-known concerns that photo ID could injure minor­ity voters, “no impact study or analysis was done.” When the legis­lature did even­tu­ally pass photo ID legis­la­tion in 2011, it bypassed all the usual legis­lat­ive proced­ures. It passed the law “without regard for its substant­ive merit,” “with unnat­ural speed,” and without debate of proposed amend­ments that would have ameli­or­ated its impact without under­cut­ting its alleged goal of ballot secur­ity.
Further, the Court held that the “racially charged envir­on­ment” of the enact­ing legis­lature was undeni­able: in response to a grow­ing Latino popu­lace in Texas, lawmakers proposed anti-immig­ra­tion laws, attemp­ted to abol­ish sanc­tu­ary cities, and even voiced concerns over Lati­nos spread­ing disease in Texas.
The Law in Effect Discrim­in­ates
Section 2 of the VRA prohib­its enact­ing a voting law which results in a denial or abridge­ment of the right to vote on account of race. In this case, the Court found that the photo ID law, in addi­tion to having been enacted with a discrim­in­at­ory purpose, also has the effect of discrim­in­at­ing against African Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos on account of race.
The Court cred­ited expert testi­mony that African-Amer­ican registered voters were 305 percent more likely, and Latino voters 195 percent more likely, to lack the proper ID when compared to white voters, and separ­ate expert testi­mony that African-Amer­ican eligible voters were 179 percent more likely, and Latino eligible voters 242 percent more likely, to lack ID when compared to white eligible voters.
Also, for those Texans without qual­i­fy­ing ID, the burden of obtain­ing it falls dispro­por­tion­ately on minor­it­ies. “African-Amer­ic­ans and Hispan­ics bear the effects of discrim­in­a­tion in educa­tion, employ­ment, and health”—not­ably, minor­it­ies in Texas are more than two times as likely as whites to live in poverty, and the roots of this dispar­ate poverty can be traced to discrim­in­a­tion in educa­tion, employ­ment, voting, and other areas of life that determ­ine well-being.
In find­ing the photo ID law discrim­in­at­ory, the Court noted that voting in Texas takes place along racial lines, with whites voting for Repub­lic­ans at much higher rates than non-whites. Also, minor­it­ies are under­rep­res­en­ted in polit­ical offices statewide, which may explain why the Texas legis­lature was unre­spons­ive to voiced concerns that the law would have a dispar­ate impact on African Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos.
The Law Burdens the Right to Vote in Viol­a­tion of the Consti­tu­tion
The right to vote for eligible citizens is protec­ted by the 1st and 14th Amend­ments, and a state cannot place restric­tions on the right to vote that are unduly burden­some. The Court in this case held that Texas’s photo ID law viol­ates the Consti­tu­tion because it “imposes a substan­tial burden on the right to vote, which is not offset by the state’s interests” in enfor­cing the law.
The Court cred­ited expert testi­mony that approx­im­ately 608,470 registered voters in Texas lack qual­i­fy­ing ID to vote. Many affected indi­vidu­als without ID test­i­fied at trial to the obstacles they face in getting ID: fees for under­ly­ing docu­ments, travel costs, admin­is­trat­ive red tape, and time The “free” voter ID created by Texas did not mitig­ate this substan­tial burden, because many people still lack the under­ly­ing docu­ments neces­sary to get the free ID and still have to travel long distances to obtain it. Also, “[n]o real effort has been made by Texas to educate the public about the avail­ab­il­ity of [a free ID] to vote, where to get it, or what is required to obtain it.”
The Court then weighed these substan­tial burdens against Texas’s justi­fic­a­tions for the law—primar­ily, insur­ing the integ­rity of the ballot—and found that the “restric­tions go too far and do not line up with the proffered State interests.” The Court noted that, although SB 14 was purportedly an anti-fraud meas­ure, “[i]n-person voter imper­son­a­tion in Texas is rare.” The Court cred­ited expert testi­mony that found “fewer than ten cases of in-person voter imper­son­a­tion fraud in the United States between 2000 and 2010.” Also, the previ­ous regime used by Texas to verify voter iden­tity “was demon­strated to be suffi­cient to assure that those show­ing up to vote were the registered voters that they claimed to be.”
The Law is a Poll Tax
The 24th Amend­ment states that the right to vote of an eligible citizen may not be “denied or abridged . . . by reason of fail­ure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” In her final hold­ing as to SB 14, the Court found that it “imposes a mater­ial require­ment solely upon those who refuse to surrender their consti­tu­tional right to vote in federal elec­tions without paying a poll tax.”
The Court noted that all forms of SB 14 ID cost money, with the excep­tion of the so-called “free” ID, known as an Elec­tion Iden­ti­fic­a­tion Certi­fic­ate. Although the Elec­tion Iden­ti­fic­a­tion Certi­fic­ate itself is issued for free, voters must still gather all the support­ing docu­ment­a­tion required to get one, includ­ing a birth certi­fic­ate. For someone born in Texas, a birth certi­fic­ate costs at least $2.00, and can cost as much as $47.00.
The Court’s opin­ion starts off by stat­ing that the right to vote “defines our nation as a demo­cracy,” and concludes by reflect­ing on the Supreme Court’s proclam­a­tion that “‘[n]o right is more precious in a free coun­try than that of having a voice in the elec­tion of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live.’” In between these stir­ring senti­ments, the decision provides a painstak­ingly detailed, fact-bound account of how SB 14 does viol­ence to this right by discrim­in­at­ing against African Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos, and by placing uncon­sti­tu­tional obstacles between eligible Texan voters and the fran­chise.