The foremost example came earlier this week in Texas, where a federal district court handed the state’s controversial voter ID bill a major defeat in a long-running legal dispute over whether it violates the VRA. The evidence presented to the court “establishes that a discriminatory purpose was at least one of the substantial or motivating factors” behind the bill’s passage, federal judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote in her order in Veasey v. Abbott. “Consequently, the burden shifted to the state to demonstrate that the law would have been enacted without its discriminatory purpose. The state has not met its burden.”
Texas passed Senate Bill 14 in 2011, but the VRA’s preclearance mechanism blocked it from going into effect. The bill’s provisions required voters to show some form of photo ID before they could cast a ballot. Those requirements, according to the groups challenging the bill in court, would have effectively disenfranchised more than a half-million otherwise eligible black and Latino voters who lacked the necessary form of ID. Shortly after the Shelby County decision removed the preclearance hurdle, Texas officials said they planned to begin enforcing it.
In rulings prior to this week’s decision, Ramos’s court had found that Senate Bill 14 had a discriminatory effect for black and Latino voters, and that the state legislature had a discriminatory intent when passing it. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the discriminatory-effect finding, but said the lower court had relied too heavily on Texas’s history of unjust voter legislation when making the discriminatory-intent finding. The appeals court sent it back to Ramos for further consideration. In her order Monday, however, Ramos said the remaining body of evidence still supported the finding.
The ruling could have major implications for the Lone Star State. Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine, law professor who specializes in election law, noted it could pave the way for the court to bring Texas back under preclearance under the VRA’s still-intact “bail-in” provision, which allows federal courts to place jurisdictions under the oversight requirement.
“If (and it is a big ‘if’) the ruling stands through the Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court appeals, it would be grounds for throwing out the entire law (and not just softening it though an affidavit requirement, etc.) and potentially a basis to put the state back under federal supervision for up to 10 years,” he wrote on his blog.
Had the Supreme Court not struck down Section 4(b), the entire showdown wouldn’t have happened. For decades before the ruling, the VRA’s preclearance provision required Arizona, Alaska, and seven former Confederate states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—to receive approval from either the U.S. attorney general or the federal district court in Washington, D.C., before altering their election laws or policies. A smattering of cities, counties, and townships in other states were also covered by the preclearance formula.