The six-year saga surrounding Texas’ voter ID law added a new chapter Wednesday evening when a federal judge again ruled the law discriminatory against minorities.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos blocked Texas’ photo identification law on the grounds that recent reforms providing for those without acceptable documents still do not erase concerns that it discriminates against some voters. Texas enacted Senate Bill 5 in 2017, setting permanent a largely court-designed system that allowed individuals lacking proper ID to show alternatives like bank statements, government checks, and utility bills while signing a Reasonable Impediment Declaration indicating a specific reason why they were originally unable to obtain a photo ID. Under SB 5, voters would sign the document under penalty of perjury, where a violation could lead up to two years in jail, if convicted.
Despite endorsing a substantially similar system ahead of the 2016 General Election, Ramos deemed the reforms troublesome as they do not add new forms of acceptable identification.
“SB 5 does not meaningfully expand the types of photo IDs that can qualify, even though the Court was clearly critical of Texas having the most restrictive list in the country,” she wrote. “Not one of the discriminatory features of [the old law] is fully ameliorated by the terms of SB 5.”
Judge Ramos showed particular concern with the perjury provision. The ruling notes that the safety net “trades one obstacle to voting with another—replacing the lack of qualified photo ID with an overreaching affidavit threatening severe penalties for perjury.” The court reckoned that building deterrents into the procedure “appear[ed] to be efforts at voter intimidation.”
The criminal penalty aspect draws its inspiration directly from Texas’ first attempt at offering affidavits to voters lacking ID during the 2016 Election. The Associated Press compiled a report in February finding hundreds of cases where county election officials believed they were being lied to when voters claimed to not have proper ID, according to a Breitbart Texas report at the time:
Texas election officials are now acknowledging that hundreds improperly cast ballots in the 2016 Election by signing a sworn statement instead of showing a photo ID, reported the Associated Press on Sunday. The AP estimated that looking at the largest counties in Texas and approximately 13,500 affidavits submitted, at least 500 voters were allowed to vote without an ID “despite indicating they possessed one.”
The AP reported that one of these affidavits stated, “Did not want to ‘pander’ to government requirement.” Another bore a notation by the election judge which stated, “Had photo ID but refused to show it.” More than 15 percent of voters in Fort Bend County near Houston who submitted affidavits stated they had photo IDs. Judge Ramos’ ruling explicitly prevented election workers from asking a voter why they wanted to use an affidavit.
“Questionable affidavits” from the November presidential election were identified in more than 20 Texas counties. Bexar County Election Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen estimated that a large portion of the 600 affidavits should have been declined, the AP investigation showed.
Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, charged with serving the largest portion of the Texas electorate, panned the temporary affidavit system in an interview with Breitbart: “The solution that the court put into place was not a very good solution. It did not allow my office to challenge voters who were obviously taking advantage of the court’s ruling.”
The comparison between working to prevent fraudulent or deceitful behavior with voter intimidation is not unique to Judge Ramos. During U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation process, the NAACP likened his decades-old voter fraud prosecutions to intimidation, Breitbart News reported in January.
Another twist in the voter ID litigation played throughout the early months of the Trump Administration. In February, word spread among the parties that the Department of Justice would soon drop its contention that Texas’ law was written with a discriminatory intent, Breitbart Texas reported. Later in July, the DOJ briefed the court, explaining that the components of SB 5 “eradicates and discriminatory effect or intent” previously seen under the original law, Breitbart Texas noted.
Texas began defending its law in earnest in 2013 when the Obama DOJ joined private parties in court. Ramos ruled shortly before the 2014 Election that SB 14 was intentionally written to carry discriminatory effects against minority voters. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 reversed Ramos’ finding that Texas’ acts were intentional and ordered the lower court to coordinate with the parties in developing a safety net for those without necessary identification in time for the presidential election. The precursor for SB 5 was then developed.
Reactions to the ruling among those favoring the voter ID law expressed confidence that history was beginning to repeat itself. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly announced an appeal was imminent.
“Today’s ruling is outrageous. Senate Bill 5 was passed by the people’s representatives and includes all the changes to the Texas voter ID law requested by the 5th Circuit,” Attorney General Paxton said in a release. “The U.S. Department of Justice is satisfied that the amended voter ID law has no discriminatory purpose or effect. Safeguarding the integrity of elections in Texas is essential to preserving our democracy. The 5th Circuit should reverse the entirety of the district court’s ruling.”
Public Interest Legal Foundation President and Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity Commissioner J. Christian Adams echoed General Paxton’s sentiments late Wednesday.
“The court has yet again proven all too willing to hand down rulings which beg to be overturned on appeal,” Adams said. The group promised to support the law via amicus briefs before the Fifth Circuit.
If the appellate court(s) eventually rule against Texas, the state will be without a functioning voter ID law for the first time since 2013. Whether the state should be “bailed in” to federal preclearance like before Shelby v. Holder remains an open question for Judge Ramos.