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Federal Court Finds Texas Voter ID Law Violates Voting Rights Act

An appeals court has ruled that Texas’s strict voter ID law illegally discriminates against blacks and Hispanics in violation of the VRA.
Pedestrians pass signs near an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas, in 2014.Eric Gay / AP file

A federal appeals court has ruled that Texas’s strict voter ID law illegally discriminates against blacks and Hispanics in violation of the Voting Rights Act -- but it stopped short of saying the law must be struck down.

The ruling Wednesday afternoon by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals marks the latest turn in a half-decade-long court fight over the law.

More than 600,000 Texans, disproportionately racial minorities, don’t have the ID required under the law, which accepts concealed handgun licenses but not student IDs, a lower court found in 2014.

The appeals court partially upheld that 2014 district court ruling, by Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, which found that the law made it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote. However, the appeals court on Wednesday rejected the lower court’s finding that the law amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax, and that it discriminated intentionally.

“I am pleased with today’s decision by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit holding that Texas’s 2011 photographic voter identification law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement Wednesday. "This decision affirms our position that Texas’s highly restrictive voter ID law abridges the right to vote on account of race or color and orders appropriate relief before yet another election passes.”

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

Because of that split decision, the appeals court suggested that the law should be softened, though not struck down. That could mean voters without acceptable ID are allowed to sign an affidavit and vote, as has happened in other challenges to ID laws. The appeals court left it to Judge Ramos to devise the specific remedy.

"This is a win for the plaintiffs, no doubt, but not nearly as good as getting the law thrown out for everyone," wrote the election law scholar Rick Hasen.

The law’s path through the courts has been winding. Passed by Republicans in 2011, it was blocked the following year under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But in 2013 the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder. Hours later, Texas announced that the law would go into effect. After the U.S. Justice Department and voting rights groups sued under a different plank of the VRA, Judge Ramos struck the law down, finding that it intentionally discriminated against non-whites. But the Supreme Court intervened to keep the law in effect for the 2014 elections, where it caused problems for some voters.

Last year, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit mostly upheld the district court’s ruling, but said the law could remain in effect while the state appealed to the full 5th Circuit. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court, with an eye on the upcoming election, gave the 5th Circuit a soft July 20 deadline to make a ruling.

Related: SCOTUS Unanimously Rejects Challenge to 'One Person, One Vote'

“We have repeatedly proven -– using hard facts –- that the Texas voter ID law discriminates against minority voters,” said Gerald Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, which helped to bring the challenge to the law. “The 5th Circuit’s full panel of judges now agrees, joining every other federal court that has reviewed this law. We are extremely pleased with this outcome. This law will no longer prevent eligible voters from casting a ballot this November.”

A spokeswoman for Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether the state would appeal.

“No American should ever lose their right to vote just because they don’t have a photo ID. This is an enormous victory for voters in Texas,” said Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “The votes of more than 600,000 Texans were at stake in today’s ruling. The court sent a message that discriminatory photo ID laws are an affront to our democracy and cannot stand.”