U.S. Department of Justice won’t pursue Texas voter ID law case

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

A U.S. district court judge heard arguments Tuesday over whether a Texas law requiring government-issued identification to vote is discriminatory, but without the U.S. Department of Justice’s backing. 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the department’s position under the previous administration Monday, saying the state legislature should have time to change its law before court proceedings decide whether it is discriminatory against minorities. 

“Thus, there is no basis for further judicial action at this juncture, when the state is ‘acting to ameliorate the issues raised’ in this case and has requested reasonable time to do so,” the department said in its filing Monday.

In 2011, the Republican-majority Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 14 requiring voters to present one out of six forms of government-issued identification: driver’s licenses, military IDs, passports, concealed handgun licenses, personal ID cards issued by the Department of Public Safety and citizenship certificates. 

The department, under the President Barack Obama administration, sued Texas in 2013 saying the state’s voter-ID law discriminated against those who cannot obtain identification documents. A Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2016 the law discriminated against minorities, but did not find the state’s law was written to intentionally discriminate.  

Texas then temporarily amended the law before last year’s November presidential election to include allowing utility bills, birth certificates and paycheck stubs or government documents with a name and address. People would have to sign an affidavit if they used these forms besides those the state originally required.

The agency will still remain a party in the case, but will no longer argue the law is discriminatory.

“With regard to the question of voter-ID, I’m not sure it’s been inclusively settled, one way or the other, whether a properly conducted voter-ID system is improper and discriminatory,” Sessions said Tuesday during the hearing.

Sessions said the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled in favor of state voter-ID laws. In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter-ID law requiring photo IDs to vote. UT law professor Lucas A. Powe Jr., who studies constitutional law at the Supreme Court, said the Court argued Indiana’s law was only cautious. 

“(The Court said) Indiana was taking an appropriate step to prevent voter fraud, even though there was no evidence of voter fraud ever in Indiana,” Powe said.

Powe said the Texas law violates people’s right to vote by discriminating against minorities who institutionally have less economic opportunities, which inhibit obtaining licenses. Powe said the plaintiffs will likely win, citing the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits state action infringing on the right to vote because of race.

“Poor people tend not to have drivers licenses because they don’t have cars, and blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor,” Powe said. “They don’t have passports because they’re not traveling to foreign countries.”

Law professor Lino Graglia, who also studies constitutional law, said states have a right to enforce voter-ID laws to prevent voter fraud. 

“When you go to vote, they want to see if you are a registered voter or have some other proof that you’re entitled to vote,” Graglia said. “The state can take reasonable steps to prevent voter fraud. They can’t do unreasonable things that tend to deter or prevent voting.”