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Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Law That Violates Voting Rights Act

In an order issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ordered Texas officials to refrain from engaging in practices that deny voting rights.
Image: Members of the New York police guard an entrance at a polling station as voting opened for the New York primary elections in the Manhattan borough of New York City
File photo of a polling station in New York City, April 19, 2016.ANDREW KELLY / Reuters

In a move that some say affirms the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a Federal judge in Texas has agreed with Asian-American activists who claimed existing Texas election code unfairly kept voters with language needs from choosing the help they want.

In a summary decision issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ordered Texas officials to refrain from engaging in practices that deny voting rights secured by the VRA and gave the plantiffs seven days to offer remedies to the situation.

“The judge agreed with us that this Texas election law was an arbitrary restriction on voting rights,” Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) told NBC News. “If a voter walked into the poll site and asked for an 'assistor,' anyone (except an employer or union rep) could help. But if the voter didn't say the magic word and asked for an 'interpreter,' that interpreter would have to be a registered voter in the same county where he or she was assisting the voter. It just doesn't make sense, unless one is trying to disenfranchise a certain group of voters.”

The new ruling affects the entire state of Texas immediately and comes with less than 100 days before the presidential election.

RELATED: Three Years After SCOTUS Case Weakened Voting Rights Act, Leaders Call for New Protections

Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy project at AALDEF, led the effort and said the judge, by upholding Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, makes implementation easy and clear.

“Next step is for us to propose remedies, and judge will decide what should be done,” Vattamala told NBC News. “Interesting thing about Section 208 of the VRA is that it does not impose ANY costs on a state or county — the state just needs to move out of the way and allow voters to be assisted by interpreters of their choice. Section 208 does not impose an affirmative duty, it just requires states to not prevent voters from being assisted inside the voting booth — there is zero cost associated with that. The only cost is in instructing and informing elections officials that they can no longer restrict interpreters like they were doing before.”

AALDEF filed the complaint on Aug. 6, 2015, on behalf of OCA-Greater Houston, a nonprofit organization, and Mallika Das, an Indian American voter. Das was denied language assistance from her son in the 2014 midterm elections because he was not a registered voter in her county.

Das died during the lawsuit, but her son, Saurabh Das, was sure his mother would be pleased.

“I am happy that the court has sided with LEP [limited English proficiency] Asian-American voters and protected their rights under federal law to receive assistance from persons of their choice,” Das said. “I hope that this decision will allow more LEP Asian Americans to vote for many elections to come.”

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