Lawyers for minority voters and politicians asked a federal judge Wednesday to void the Texas voter ID law, saying it is the next logical step for a statute found to be discriminatory.
The lawyers also said they will ask U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to require Texas officials to get U.S. Justice Department approval for any future changes to election law or voting procedures to guard against additional attempts to discriminate against minority voters.
Much of Wednesday’s courtroom conference focused on recent action by the Legislature to soften the requirements of the state’s voter ID law.
Senate Bill 5, signed into law last week by Gov. Greg Abbott, was meant to fix problems Ramos had identified with the 2011 law, Texas Deputy Solicitor General Matthew Frederick said.
“We are trying to have a reasonable, fair photo voter ID law that allows everyone to vote,” Frederick said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went further in an advisory, filed last week in Ramos’ court, arguing that SB 5 will provide a safety valve that allows registered voters to cast a ballot if they couldn’t reasonably obtain a government-issued photo ID.
“Senate Bill 5 cures any alleged discriminatory effect caused by the state’s photo voter ID requirement,” Paxton wrote.
Plaintiffs lawyer Ezra Rosenberg disagreed.
“SB 5 still bears the discriminatory intent of (the original law) because it still visits burdens on those groups your honor has found were discriminated against,” Rosenberg told Ramos.
Plaintiffs lawyer Chad Dunn said SB 5 was enacted with the same legislative problems Ramos had identified in the original voter ID law, including no study to determine the bill’s impact on minority voters and the rejection of amendments proposed by black and Latino lawmakers to soften the bill’s effect.
In April, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found the 2011 voter ID law discriminatory for the second time. But she delayed any remedy her court could provide, including placing the state under federal supervision, until the end of the session to give state lawmakers a chance to act.
On Wednesday, attorneys for the state argued that lawmakers had addressed the court’s concerns. The plaintiffs were trying to “paint a caricature” of the state and the law that was not true, said Matthew Frederick, Texas deputy solicitor general.
“It’s just a bill that’s trying to do what the court told us to do and fix SB 14 [the voter ID law],” Frederick said. “We’re trying to have a reasonable, fair photo ID law that allows everybody to vote.”
Frederick asked Ramos to dissolve a ruling she made last fall that softened the voter ID law for the presidential election after an appeals court found the voter ID law discriminatory. That would allow the law, with the new changes, to go into effect in January of next year.
Frederick wants to the court to rule by Aug. 10. If a decision is delayed any further, it could disrupt elections in 2018, he said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they don’t see a need for a resolution by August. Rather than ruling on whether the newly passed legislation fixed issues with the original voter ID law, they argued, the court should focus on providing remedies for its findings that the law discriminated against minorities and did so on purpose.
“The court should continue its course and strike it down,” said Chad Dunn, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the plaintiffs.
Doing so would bring Texas back to the voter requirements that were in effect before the 2011 voter ID law. Dunn said the newly passed law, also known as Senate Bill 5, did not fully address issues with the original voter ID law and was a “duct tape” solution.
“It is litigation strategy masquerading as a legislative function,” he said.
Dunn said the bill ignored some of the provisions Ramos had suggested in her interim order, such as listing an “other” box on the declaration of reasonable impediments. Not including the box limits the documents people can use to vote, and making it a felony to lie on the declaration could discourage voters, he said.
You know where I stand on this. I don’t see how SB5 can possibly address the discriminatory intent issue, but even if one can accept that it does, it’s still the case that the state did as little as it thought it could get away with to mitigate the effect of voter ID. There’s still no transparency in how the 2016 outreach effort was conducted, huge numbers of people were confused about what they needed to vote, the list of accepted documents that don’t require an affidavit is the same, and the penalty for lying on the form is excessive and possibly discouraging to voters. Given all this, and given the massive scope of the failure in 2016, voiding the law is the only sensible remedy that even approaches a proper level of redress. Judge Ramos has asked both sides for a brief on what they think the remedy should be for Monday, though I doubt there will be any surprises in them. The Trib has more.