Texas House Battleground Could Hinge on Voter-ID Law in Flux

A federal appeals court struck down the statute last week, emboldening Democrats in West Texas.

Voters: Independents still hold key. (National Journal)

When former Rep. Pete Gallego narrowly lost his 2014 reelection bid in West Texas, fellow Democrats blamed low turnout prompted by the state's tough voter-ID law. Now that a U.S. appeals court has struck down the law, that obstacle has suddenly shrunk ahead of Gallego's 2016 rematch against Republican Rep. Will Hurd.

In a victory for Democrats and minority-rights groups last week, a federal appeals court ruled that the Texas law discriminated against blacks and Hispanics and violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The panel sent the case back to a lower court to fix its discriminatory effects, an outcome that's left Democrats bullish that more minority voters will cast ballots during next year's presidential race.

That could have an outsized effect in Hurd and Gallego's district, where more than 70 percent of residents are Hispanic. Last year, Gallego lost to Hurd by 2 percentage points — or just 2,400 votes.

"Will Hurd is not the candidate of choice in a district that is overwhelmingly Hispanic," said Democratic strategist Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project. "Any change that is likely to increase participation by voters is going to lessen the prospects for a Republican candidate in Texas."

The Hurd campaign, regardless of any changes to voting requirements, is projecting confidence.

"All that the campaign is focused on is getting as many votes out as we can to supporters of Will," campaign manager Justin Hollis said. "Based on Will's record of getting things done, we're pretty sure that the voters are going to grade his paper and they'll give him a good grade."

Considered one of the strictest of its kind, the Texas law requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license or United States passport, to the polls. About 600,000 voters statewide lack state-issued IDs, according to the Justice Department.

Supporters of the law say that the measure prevents voter fraud. Texas has not said yet said whether it will appeal the unanimous decision to the full appeals court or to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Democrats are heralding the ruling as welcome news. As a way to correct the law's discriminatory effects, the state, for example, could start accepting forms of identification that are more readily available, such as a voter-registration card.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the ruling," Gallego told National Journal, "and I think the district court will fashion a remedy that is fair and just."

"This is a huge victory for hundreds of thousands of Texas voters," said Gerry Hebert, a lawyer for the plaintiffs challenging the measure. "And it's an enormous victory for voting-rights advocates."

A recently released study conducted by Rice University and the University of Houston concluded the law may have altered the outcome of Gallego's reelection. In a survey of 400 registered voters in the district, 13 percent cited their lack of an acceptable photo ID as a reason why they didn't vote. About 6 percent said they sat out the election primarily because of the requirements.

Of the group who said the state ID law dissuaded them from voting, four to five times more said they would have preferred Gallego.

The law "quite possibly could have played a role in his defeat," said Mark Jones, an author of the study and professor at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

But Republicans don't believe that Hurd, a former CIA operative, necessarily has reason to worry. Many in the GOP see him as a rising star within the party, especially as a chairman of the IT subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Hurd also holds a strong fundraising lead over Gallego, having raised nearly $1 million so far in 2015.

"I would not bet on Gallego to win this race," said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist.

As the voter-ID case moves forward, there's also the possibility that the district's lines may be changed before 2016. A different case — currently pending before a three-judge federal court — features voting-rights activists arguing that lawmakers drew congressional districts like Hurd's to dilute the voting power of minorities.

If the court finds that the plan violates the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution, Texas could be forced to draw a new set of congressional maps. In that case, the West Texas district would likely add more Latino voters.