Texas’ Voter Discrimination Legacy

Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court in downtown Washington, D.C. heard arguments for Texas v. Holder, the federal trial on Texas’ restrictive voter ID law. Voting rights advocates, including grantee partners the Texas League of Young Voters and Campaign Legal Center, provided testimony and legal representation for the defense in the five day trial.

The Houston-based Texas League of Young Voters testified that the photo ID requirement, passed in 2011, discriminates against young minority voters. The law deems concealed handgun licenses as an acceptable form of identification for voting, but not a student ID card from colleges and universities. Before this change, students voted in previous elections using a state-issued student ID.

Given Texas’ history of voter discrimination, it is one of the states required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to seek approval from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C. in order to make any changes to their voting procedures. In March 2012, the Justice Department, issued an objection to the photo ID requirement based on their estimates that 1.4 million Texans would be disenfranchised.

In addition to students, this law would have a severe discriminatory effect on communities of color and those affected by poverty. Nationally, 8% of white voting-age citizens lack appropriate ID while 25% of African-American voting-age citizens do not have suitable ID, according to a 2011 study by Open Society Foundations grantee partner the Brennan Center for Justice. Individuals without proper identification would have to travel great distances to obtain them and would struggle to pay the fees necessary to acquire proper documents. In Texas v. Holder the Campaign Legal Center served as chief counsel to a group of people who would be disenfranchised by the law because they are too poor to obtain proper ID. Attorney General Eric Holder has publicly called the law a poll tax.

The Texas photo ID requirement is part of a larger national trend of state laws that rollback voting rights. Since 2010, voter ID laws have been passed in 10 states; and in total, restrictive provisions have been enacted in 19 states. As a result, as many as five million voters nationwide are at risk of disenfranchisement. The Texas v. Holder case is significant not just because of the number of voters it could impact, but also because it could trigger a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Historically, this provision has been an instrumental tool in protecting minority voters from unfair barriers to the polls. Without it, the Voting Rights Act would be significantly weakened, and decades of progress on expanding the American electorate to include new citizens, including communities of color, would potentially be reversed.

As demographic compositions in states like Texas shift to be “minority-majority” where populations of color outnumber whites, the Open Society Foundations and its grantee partners are concerned about the regressive policy efforts to suppress the votes of communities of color. The decision for this precedent-setting case is expected in August; civil rights advocates are watching closely.

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