Appeals Court Demands Changes To Texas Voter ID Law

Jul 20, 2016
Originally published on July 20, 2016 6:56 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A federal appeals court has struck down part of Texas's voter ID law which had been one of the strictest in the country. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals says the law violates the Voting Rights Act and discriminates against minority voters. It is now up to a lower court to fix the law before the November elections. NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting rights cases, and joins us now. Hi, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So how big of a deal is this ruling?

FESSLER: This is really a major victory for civil rights groups and the Department of Justice because they've been fighting this law ever since it was enacted about five years ago. Texas has probably what's the strictest voter ID law in the country. Voters have to show one of seven types of government-issued photo ID at the polls, such as a driver's license, a passport or even a concealed handgun permit.

But plaintiffs argue that hundreds of thousands of voters in this state don't have that kind of ID and that they'd have a very difficult time getting it. And they say that minority voters are more likely to be affected than anyone else, something that the court agreed with in this case. Significantly though, the court didn't strike down the entire law, but it asked this lower court to try to fix it and to fix it before November.

MCEVERS: Well, how realistic is that, that this lower court can do that?

FESSLER: Well, there's something that's been going on in a number of other states that I think is probably an option for them. In North Carolina, which has a similar ID law which is also being challenged in court, the state revised it recently and said that voters who don't have the right ID can sign an affidavit saying that they face what's called a reasonable impediment to getting one. Maybe they don't have a birth certificate or some other document that they need for - to get an ID or that they might have to travel a long distance to get those documents. And courts have upheld that.

And just yesterday, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that voters in that state should also be allowed this option. The state of Wisconsin is now deciding whether or not to appeal that decision.

MCEVERS: Officials in Texas had said that this law was necessary - right? - to prevent voter fraud. What have they said that they will do now?

FESSLER: Well, they haven't said exactly, other than that they're obviously disappointed in the decision. I think that there's probably a very good chance that the state's going to appeal today's decision or seek some kind of relief in the Supreme Court.

As you say, that they say it's needed to prevent voter fraud. Although the courts in this case and others have not found much evidence that such fraud exists, that people are not impersonating other people at the polls.

But the state also says that they've put a number of provisions in place, such as providing free ID, that alleviates a lot of the problems, and they don't think that any voters have in fact been disenfranchised.

As you know, this is part of a much bigger fight between Democrats and Republicans over voting restrictions. Most of these have been enacted by Republicans, so both sides are watching to see what's happens in Texas and what impact it might have in November.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Pam Fessler. Thank you.

FESSLER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.