AUSTIN, TEXAS —
An appeals court has dealt the strongest blow yet to Texas' strict voter ID law, ruling that it violates federal protections against discrimination at the ballot box and must be reshaped before November so as not to unfairly harm poor and minority Texas residents.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans found Wednesday that the law violates provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It ordered a lower court to determine ways Texas can fix the law prior to the presidential election this fall.
The law has been challenged in court almost from the moment it was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 — and has now had a series of major rulings go against it. Here are answers to some key questions about how Texas got this far and what happens next:
Q: How does this affect presidential voting?
A: The law went into effect in 2014, even as legal challenges continued to rage. Since then, Texas held three statewide elections under it with no reports of major voter disruptions.
During this year's presidential election, voters will still be required to show picture identification to cast ballots. But Wednesday's ruling means those who can't must still be allowed to vote — and that a lower court will have to help Texas devise ways to accommodate them.
It's not clear when those suggested fixes will be ready or how they will be implemented once they are.
Q: What is the Voting Rights Act?
A: A federal statute designed to prevent state and local governments from discriminating against minorities. Approved in 1965, it was a landmark civil rights measure that prohibited the use of poll taxes and other requirements designed to discourage blacks from voting in much of the post-Civil War South.
In its ruling, the 5th Circuit suggested that Texas might have drafted its voter ID law with intent to discriminate. That appears to open the door for future legal challenges that Texas' law deliberately sought to hinder its poor and minority citizens from voting.
The Voting Rights Act used to require that Texas — and other, mostly southern states with histories of discrimination — get federal approval when redrawing electoral maps or making laws pertaining to elections. The U.S. Supreme Court struck that down in 2013.
Still, enough of the act survives that if Texas is found to have intentionally discriminated when it drafted its voter ID law, the state could again be forced to get federal "preclearance'' on electoral laws.
The Texas Legislature reconvenes in January, though, and could modify the voter ID law enough to avoid such a challenge.
In the meantime, the ruling is a win for President Barack Obama's administration, which used the U.S. Justice Department to challenge Texas' law as a way to fight ballot-box restrictions passed by conservative statehouses nationwide.
Q: What happened prior to the latest ruling?
A: In 2014, a federal judge in Corpus Christi declared Texas' law unconstitutional, likening it to a poll tax and saying it had a discriminatory effect on poor and minority voters. The law was eventually allowed to remain in effect because that ruling came so close to that November's election.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court found that the law violated parts of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Then the full, 15-member 5th Circuit decided to hear the case, which included testimony that Hispanics were twice as likely and blacks three times more likely than whites to lack an acceptable ID under the law.
That set up Wednesday's ruling, in which the full 5th Circuit rejected the notion that the law was like a poll tax, but upheld the previous decision that its effect was nonetheless discriminatory. It also included suggestions that the law perhaps intended to discriminate — meaning future cases could put Voting Rights Act preclearance back on the table for Texas.
Q: Is Texas' law unique?
A: More than 30 states have some form of voter ID law. Of those, nine have strict limitations on what forms of identification are valid.
But Texas is considered the strictest such law, since it spells out just seven forms of acceptable identification to vote. A concealed handgun license is allowed, college IDs are not.