Federal Courts Slow Efforts in Texas and Florida to Suppress the Vote

August 30, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Whether it’s outrageous and wholly unwarranted new restrictions on voting or new voting districts concocted to keep minorities from participating in democracy, rightwing lawmakers and their corporate backers, over the past two years, have stridently pushed an ignoble and tawdry campaign of voter suppression.

But federal courts this week dealt the anti-democracy campaign some setbacks. First, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s in State of Texas v. U.S. swept aside the state’s redistricting plans as discriminatory. The new Texas voting districts, the federal court found violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they discriminated against Latino voters.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle said he would sign a permanent injunction against a provision of Florida’s voting overhaul law that made it much more difficult for groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registrations.

Deidre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida told The Associated Press that the state’s “anti-voter law created impassable roadblocks for our volunteers, who have been bringing Floridians into our democratic process for over 72 years.”

Florida, along with Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, has sought to implement some of the more onerous restrictions on voting. Not only did Florida seek to shut down voter registration drives, it also enacted rigid voter ID requirements and sought to greatly limit early voting opportunities.

Earlier this month the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia held that Florida’s curtailment of early voting opportunities ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act, which applies to states and localities that have a history of voter discrimination. The court held that curtailing early voting opportunities in Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties would have a discriminatory impact on African American voters. The state, the court held, “failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters,” and that the restrictions on early voting was “analogous to closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.”

Today the efforts of Texas to manipulate the vote were dealt yet another blow. The state’s onerous voter ID law also violates the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia ruled in State of Texas v. Holder.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued that the voter ID law was essential to prevent voter fraud. The three-judge panel of the federal court, however, did not buy the voter fraud argument, and instead found that the onerous restrictions would harm minority voters and place “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor,” Charlie Savage and Manny Fernandez reported for The New York Times.

The U.S. Department of Justices and civil liberties groups challenging the Texas voter ID law argued that the “specter of in-person voter fraud is a chimera meant to mask the discriminatory purpose” of the law, the court noted. According to the DOJ and the civil liberties groups, Texas officials failed to produce evidence of voter fraud.

But significantly for the federal court, Texas’s voter ID law would have suppressed minority voter turnout. And like the counties in Florida, the state of Texas must abide by the Voting Rights Act.

The court said evidence in the record showed that if the Texas voter ID law were implemented it “would in fact have a retrogressive effect on Hispanic and African American voters. This conclusion flows from three basic facts: (1) a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic lack photo ID; (2) the burdens associated with obtaining ID will weigh most heavily on the poor; and (3) racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.” Thus citing court precedent, the three-judge panel found that the Texas voter ID measure would “likely ‘lead to retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to the effective exercise of the electoral franchise.’”

In a joint press statement, civil liberties groups involved in challenging many restrictive voter ID laws lauded the court’s ruling. The Brennan Center for Justice’s Wendy Weiser said, “As the leading democracy in the world, our voting system should be free, fair, and accessible to all eligible Americans. We are pleased the court agrees with this fundamental principle. Our nation’s founders fought for the right to vote because they knew the American people must have a say in government to protect their freedom.”

Not surprisingly Gov. Perry complained that the federal court provided a “victory” for voter fraud. “Federal judges subverted the will of the people of Texas and undermined our effort to ensure fair and accurate elections,” the statement continued. “The Obama Administration’s claim that it’s burden to present a photo ID to vote simply defies common sense.”

The rhetoric regarding voter fraud will continue to be peddled by Perry and other rightists. As the federal court panel today noted, much of the rhetoric deflects from the true purpose of many of the voter ID measures, which is all about keeping certain people from participating in democracy.

An ACS Issue Brief by Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt knocked voter fraud claims as wobbly. More people each year report seeing UFOs, he wrote.

Attorney General Eric Holder lauded the court’s action saying in a press statement that under Texas’s voter ID law “many of those without voter identification would be forced to travel great distances to get one – and some would have to pay for the documents they might need to do so.”

In a speech earlier this summer to the NAACP, Holder blasted restrictive voter ID laws as being akin to Jim Crow era restrictions. Speaking specifically about the Texas scheme, Holder said the proposed measure “concealed handgun licenses would be an acceptable form of photo ID – but student IDs would not. Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distance to get them – and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them. We call those poll taxes,” he said.