*This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium regarding the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
You may be tempted not to think too deeply about the Fifth Circuit’s decision yesterday, affirming that Texas’s photo ID law disparately burdens Black and Latino voters and thus violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Perhaps you just want to celebrate the result: that ‒ unless appellate review dictates otherwise ‒ Texas’s discriminatory law will be reformed. Or, maybe you are tired of hearing about Texas this week. On Monday, our attorney general, Ken Paxton, was indicated for securities fraud (oops) and on Tuesday, former governor Rick Perry failed to make the cut for the first GOP debate (famously, oops).
But the Fifth Circuit’s opinion underscores truths about voting in Texas that, like the Lone Star State itself, cast an oversized shadow on election law and policy nationwide.
To start: As the court recognizes, numerous empirical studies confirm that increasing the cost of voting decreases turnout. This is particularly true for low-income citizens who are, in the Fifth Circuit’s words, the “most cost sensitive.” The Texas photo ID law operates to impose severe burdens upon the poor, who are wildly less likely to have one of a few types of IDs that satisfy Texas’s law such as a driver’s license or passport, and cannot afford the necessary underlying documentation. As one voter put it during trial, before paying $42 for a birth certificate so she could get an ID, she had to weigh the significant costs to her family, explaining that “we couldn’t eat the birth certificate, and we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate.” Understandably, most people in that situation will not vote. The rent is too damn high.
Moreover, as the Fifth Circuit detailed, due to historical discrimination, Black and Latino Texans are, on average, less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to be in poor health. These factors lead to wide income gaps — 29 percent of Blacks and 33 percent of Latinos live below the poverty line, compared to just 12 percent of Anglos. This means that the ID law’s burdens on poor voters are disparately felt by communities of color.