The U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday allowed Texas to enforce its voter identification law for the Nov. 4 midterm elections, denying emergency requests from the Obama administration and other challengers who said the law harmed minority voting rights.
The high court’s move, announced in an early morning order, is a setback for civil-rights advocates and marks the court’s fourth recent action on a state’s election procedures just ahead of Election Day.
A federal judge in Texas last week struck down the state law after holding a trial on the issue and concluding lawmakers acted with discriminatory intent when they enacted the law in 2011.
Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said the Texas law was the strictest in the country for several reasons, including because it allowed the fewest forms of acceptable photo identification and didn’t make certain accommodations for the poor and the elderly.
The judge said more than half a million registered voters, many of them black or Hispanic, were expected to lack the ID necessary to vote in person at the polls.
The state law requires voters to show a state-issued driver’s license, personal ID card or concealed handgun license, or a U.S. citizenship certificate, military ID card or passport.
This week the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, acting on an emergency appeal by state officials, decided Texas could use the voter ID law for this election. The appeals court said the state already had been training poll workers to apply the voter ID law and said it was too late to change the rules so close to the date when voters were due to begin casting ballots. Early voting in Texas begins Monday.
The appeals court said it was guided in part by recent Supreme Court emergency actions on election rules in Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The results in those cases pointed in different directions, but in each case the justices blocked late changes to state election procedures, seemingly out of concern for voter confusion. The high court didn’t offer an explanation for its course of action in those cases.
The same held true Saturday when a majority of the court issued a brief written order that allowed Texas to use its voter ID law. But three justices— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan —dissented, saying the court should have intervened.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Justice Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters.
The Justice Department and civil rights groups had filed emergency appeals with the Supreme Court, saying there was no justification for allowing Texas to use the voter ID law after a judge found it to be discriminatory.
Texas said in court papers that its law wasn’t discriminatory and was approved to deter and detect voter fraud. The state also disputed the trial judge’s finding that large numbers of voters could be disenfranchised, saying it had taken extensive steps to mitigate “the already minor inconveniences associated with securing photo identification.”
The Supreme Court action Saturday wasn’t a ruling on the legality of the Texas law. The court was considering only whether the law could be applied while Texas appealed the trial judge’s ruling.
With the high court’s action in favor of Texas, three of the court’s four recent emergency actions in election matters have favored the states. The court also allowed Ohio to cut back on early voting and let North Carolina prohibit same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting. In a win for civil rights advocates, the court blocked Wisconsin from enforcing its voter ID law for the midterms.
“Today’s decision means hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in Texas will be unable to participate in November’s election because Texas has erected an obstacle course designed to discourage voting,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, said the state would continue to defend the voter ID law “and remains confident that the district court’s misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter ID laws are a legal and sensible way to protect the integrity of elections.”