UPDATE: On Thursday October 9, federal judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos blocked Texas' photo ID law on the grounds that it violates both Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution, by denying minority voters an equal opportunity to vote — a major victory for civil rights groups in the state.
"The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, and this law would have silenced the voice of those that need government's ear the most," Trey Martinez Fischer, the head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the groups that had taken the law to court, said in a statement. "Citizens have the duty to vote and participate in our democracy, and restrictive voting laws like Texas's have no place in the 21st century."
Once again, a Texas court is hearing out arguments about who gets the right to vote — and how — in a battle for the ballot that reflects deeper questions of political inclusion in a quickly transforming demographic landscape.
As the country and the state prepare for major elections in November, a US District Court trial started in Corpus Christi this month over the fate of a controversial law that strictly limits the forms of ID accepted at the ballot in the country's second most populous state.
The law, known as SB 14, was passed in 2011, but challenged successfully in 2012 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — the same section whose constitutionality the Supreme Court struck down last year. Section 5 of the 1965 act stipulated that certain states and other jurisdictions needed federal approval before making any changes to their voting law. With that provision eliminated, the state went ahead and put the law into effect.
Texas may be a bastion of republicanism, but it's also the poster child for the country's rapidly transforming demographics.
But advocates for a more inclusive vote didn't give up, and Texas' NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) took the law to court once again, under a different section of the Voting Rights Act that still holds, in a case that has now made its way to US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos's court. The lawsuit was one of several filed over the law — including one by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
"Last year unfortunately the Supreme Court changed all that," Satinder Singh, a lawyer at the ACLU of Texas, which is not part to the lawsuit, told VICE News. "But that does not mean that the Voting Rights Act is dead."
Since 1975, when Texas was placed under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act, he added, Texas has proposed more than 200 changes to its voting law that the federal government objected to — a clear pattern of attempted disenfranchisement through voter turnout suppression, according to critics, who also called the strict ID requirements a "suppression technique" and a form of "voter bullying."
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Today, to vote in Texas you need one of seven photo IDs — a Texas driver's license, a US passport, a state-issued ID card, a state-issued election certificate, a US military ID, a citizenship certificate with a photo issued by the federal government, or a Texas concealed handgun license.
An out-of-state driver's license along with other proof of Texas residence won't cut it — and a University of Texas student ID or even state of Texas employee ID won't help either.
That means that, by the broadest estimates outlined in the lawsuit, up to 1.2 million out of 13.6 million eligible Texans may be turned away at the polls, or allowed to cast a vote that won't be counted until they come back with one of the documents above.
A disproportionate number of them will be black, Hispanic, elderly, or poor Texans — making the law deliberately discriminatory, critics say.
'I had to put $42 where it would do the most good...We couldn't eat the birth certificate.'
"Texas' photo ID law could prevent hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from voting, and it hits minorities the hardest," Myrna Perez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice, which is part of the legal team challenging the law, told VICE News. "The court was right to block this law in 2012 and nothing has changed since then."
The office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott — a favorite to become governor — declined to comment on the ongoing trial.
But one of his assistants told a judge in the case that the ID requirement hasn't disenfranchised voters in the elections that have followed the ruling, the Associated Press reported.
"This requirement is one that Americans comply with every day to engage in mundane activities like cashing a check, opening a bank account or boarding a plane," Reed Clay said.
"Things like cashing a check or opening a bank account are not fundamental rights," Perez pushed back. "Voting is."
The ID law has a real impact on eligible residents who had been previously able to vote, but lacking the time, access, or resources to get the required IDs, she added.
A Texas voter ID is free, but in order to get it you need a birth certificate — and that's about $50 in most states.
"You can get a free voter ID card in Alabama just showing your utility bill. In Texas, you have to show your birth certificate. So free should be in quotes," Singh said. "There's a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos who live in poverty in Texas, and this definitely affects them at a disproportionate rate."
In the first week of the trial, some Texans who have not been able to cast their vote due to the ID requirement took the stand.
Sammie Bates, who is black, moved to Texas in 2011 but was not allowed to vote with her Illinois ID. To get a Texas one, she first needed to get a copy of her Mississippi birth certificate, and shell $42 for it. That was too expensive for Bates, whose income is about $321 a month.
"I had to put $42 where it would do the most good," she testified on the day of the trial. "We couldn't eat the birth certificate."
'When the legislative leadership did this, they knew that between 500,000 and 800,000 Texans would be registered to vote, lacked the proper ID, and would be unable to vote.'
Calvin Carrier, an 83-year-old vet and also black, had his old VA card rejected because of a partially damaged photo, and his family was given the runaround from one office to the next.
"I brought my father to the local DPS office in person," his son Floyd testified. "I wheeled him — we waited in line, I wheeled him up to the window and told the lady what we were trying to do, we were trying to obtain a Texas issued ID card. She asked for, she asked if we had his driver's license. I presented the driver's license. She looked at it and said, 'It's over three years expired; do you have a birth certificate?' I said, 'No, my father was born in a rural area and we don't have a birth certificate. But we have a state issued driver's license that your office issued. Why isn't that good enough?'"
Proponents of the law said the ID provisions protect the integrity of the vote and last year, governor Rick Perry slammed the DOJ lawsuit, accusing the administration of "continual attack on the states."
"This administration, Eric Holder... I think it's a clear indication of their disregard for the constitution," Perry said then. "This is a great example of this administration's use of race at the drop of a hat." He added that the Texas legislature was merely defending the " sanctity of our voting process."
"This is about making sure that people who are not supposed to be voting do not vote," he said. "This administration wants to continue to mess with Texas."
But critics argued the evidence of fraud hardly justifies the restrictive measures. Only two people admitted to voter ID fraud in Texas since 2002 — with over 60 million votes cast in elections across the state.
"Voter ID law in Texas is a solution looking for a problem," Trey Martinez Fischer, the head of MALC and a Democratic representative in the state house, told VICE News.
"When the legislative leadership did this, they knew that anything between 500,000 and 800,000 Texans would be registered to vote, lacked the proper ID, and would be unable to vote. It just doesn't make any sense," he added. "Given the democratic changes in Texas, Republicans have a choice: they can work for and with the minority community or they can work against the minority community. Voter ID legislation is clearly a step in working against minorities."
"Texas is really what the US will look like 50 years from now"Texas may be a bastion of republicanism, but it's also the poster child for the country's rapidly transforming demographics.
'You can't have a public policy position that is anti-Hispanic at a time when there are at least 180,000 Hispanic children turning 18 every year.'
The state's Harris county, which includes Houston, saw a growth of nearly one million people since the 2000 census — the largest in any county in the country.
"The vast majority of that growth came from minorities — black, brown, Asian people," Singh said. "Texas is really what the US will look like 50 years from now, 100 years from now. These efforts to restrict voting as we move forward are attempts to go back."
According to Singh, while only 3 percent of white Texans lack an acceptable ID, the number of Hispanics without acceptable ID is more than three times higher.
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The voter ID law is not just discriminatory, Martinez Fischer said — it's also very short-sighted.
"You can't have a public policy position that is anti-Hispanic at a time when there are at least 180,000 Hispanic children turning 18 every year," he said. "It's not a recipe for a sustained political party, when you can take those kinds of views knowing full well that the demographic explosion in the state of Texas is Hispanic children."
He called Texas' voter law the "most stringent, harshest voter identification legislation in the country."
To put that in perspective, Texas's voter ID law is seen as being more strict than Alabama's — the state that successfully challenged part of the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court.
"Alabama is not exactly a hotbed of liberalism, but even their voter ID law is much, much more lenient and permissive than Texas," Singh said. "In Alabama, you can use a student ID card, or a government card. In Texas, you can't use a University of Texas ID. A state employee in Texas is not able to use his state government ID card."
Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are all currently engaged in lawsuits challenging voting restrictions ahead of the November vote. Some legal experts expect that at least one of the cases will eventually make its way back to the Supreme Court.
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"This case will have a big impact on many Texans. But it could have an even bigger impact in the courts," Perez said. "Now that Section 5 is inoperable, courts are considering other available tools to combat racial discrimination. This case could influence how some of those other cases are decided."
In Texas, the groups who took the law to court are hoping a decision will come down in time for the November vote. But they are also looking well past that.
"It may affect this election but it's not about one election or the next election, or about this republican candidate or this democratic candidate," Singh said. "It's about preserving the most important institution that makes us citizens, the right to participate in democracy, the right to say, 'I'm equal to you. I don't make as much money as you, I don' t live in the same neighborhood, I don' t have as much education as you, but right now I'm equal to you.' That's what this is about, it's a matter of who is a citizen."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi
Photo via Flickr