A Court Strikes Down Texas's Voter ID Law For the Fifth Time

By finding legislators intentionally discriminated, the ruling could put state elections laws back under control of the Department of Justice.

LM Otero / AP

Texas’s voter ID law has been having a pretty bad time in the courts. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found that the state’s new S.B. 5 law, passed in June, is still invalid, because its predecessor law was passed with discriminatory intent. But Judge Ramos went even further than simply striking down the law—implying that renewed federal supervision of Texas voting laws may be necessary, an arrangement that hasn’t existed since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

That predecessor, S.B. 14, was passed in 2011 and has since been a mainstay in Texas courts. The law required an authorized photo ID—driver’s license, passport, military identification, or gun permit—a requirement that Ramos and appeals courts have ruled multiple times to have a discriminatory effect on people of color who may not have access to those forms of identification. Ramos also ruled that the law was drafted with the intent of discrimination, a ruling that she has held through multiple iterations of the law in court.

When lawmakers tried to sidestep the court’s ruling by making a slightly more lax law in S.B. 5, Ramos’s court continued to hear cases on the voter-ID initiative. In the court’s order on Wednesday, Ramos declared that “discriminatory intent strongly favors a wholesale injunction against the enforcement of any vestige of the voter photo ID law.” In essence, Ramos ruled that because the original voter ID law in Texas was implemented with the purpose of reducing the voting strength of people of color, all connected future laws would be subject to scrutiny and injunction if they fail to show that they won’t discriminate. That ruling marks the fifth overall injunction against the Texas voter ID law in federal courts, and the third time it’s made its way through Ramos’s courtroom.

Perhaps hoping that the sixth time will be the charm, Texas legislators who wrote S.B. 14 and S.B. 5 do seem likely to appeal their case. What’s at stake is suddenly greater than their ability to implement voter ID requirements. In her ruling Wednesday, Ramos stated that one possible remedy the court could consider could be “continued supervision of Texas election laws under the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act.” That is, the court could force Texas to go back to the requirement of having all of its elections laws cleared by the Department of Justice, a requirement implemented by the Voting Rights Act on all former strongholds of Jim Crow, and one effectively stripped away by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.

S.B. 14 was implemented in the aftermath of the Shelby County decision, as preclearance blocked the law from going into effect from 2011 to 2013. But even if Texas is provisionally placed once again under the DOJ’s authority, the department may simply approve future elections laws anyway.  Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in 2013 praised the Shelby County decision, the DOJ has reversed course on objections to the discriminatory intent of voter ID laws in Texas, and has written a memo endorsing S.B. 5, despite not having data on possible discriminatory effects. Given that endorsement, it appears preclearance would be a minor hurdle at best.

But Ramos’s remedy, if it holds, could have effects down the line. If the judge does decide that resuming preclearance is the answer, future attorneys general could be last lines of defense for voters in the growing battle over elections law in a rapidly changing state. Even if her remedy isn’t so drastic, it appears that the future of strict voter ID laws in Texas is in real jeopardy.