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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.