AUSTIN – A flurry of recent legal activity could affect how 14 million registered Texas voters cast ballots in time for November’s presidential election.
In New Orleans, a federal appeals court is set to re-examine the constitutionality of Texas’ tough voter ID law, while the U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether it should still be enforced in the meantime. A separate lawsuit in San Antonio accuses Texas of defying federal voter “motor voter” rules.
The legal questions and timing of the cases are different, but all could have an impact on how Texans vote. Here are some answers to key questions about the cases:
Q: Where does Texas’ voter ID law stand?
A: The New Orleans-based Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will consider the state’s 2011 law requiring voters show picture identification at the polls during a May 24 hearing.
A federal judge in Corpus Christi declared the law unconstitutional in October 2014, likening it to a poll tax and saying it had a discriminatory effect on poor and minority voters by making it more difficult for them to cast ballots.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court found that the law violated parts of the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to prevent state and local governments from discriminating against minorities. But a majority of the 15-member court decided March 9 that the full court should consider the case, and the latest hearing date was set last week.
That’s a potential blow for the Obama administration, which used the U.S. Justice Department to challenge Texas’ law as a way to fight ballot-box restrictions passed by conservative statehouses nationwide. But top Texas officials are cheering their chance to defend a measure they say ensures the integrity of their state’s elections.
Q: Aren’t Texas voters already required to show ID?
A: Yes. The 2014 decision came so close to Election Day that a panel of the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas’ voter ID law could be enforced that year to avoid voter confusion.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that order and it remains in effect. On Friday, though, the plaintiffs who originally challenged the law’s constitutionality – including Hispanic groups and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasy, a Democrat from Fort Worth – asked the nation’s high court to block its enforcement for the November vote.
They argue that possible confusion surrounding the law ahead of the 2014 election stopped being relevant after balloting that year.
Texas should soon respond to that challenge, but there’s not yet a timetable on when the Supreme Court may rule.
Q: How did we get this far?
A: Texas’ law requires residents to show one of seven forms of approved identification, including concealed handgun licenses. But, unlike such laws passed in other states with conservative legislatures, Texas’ rules are especially strict because they don’t recognize things like university IDs from college students.
Supporters say the law prevents electoral fraud, but opponents maintain that its true intent is to make voting tougher for older, poor and minority voters who tend to support Democrats and are less likely to have the state-mandated forms of identification.
While there have been anecdotal reports of adverse effects on Texas elections held while enforcing the law, there weren’t widespread issues with people being unable to cast ballots because they lacked proper identification.
Q: Are there other legal challenges to voting in Texas?
A: Yes. A challenge filed in federal court in San Antonio on March 14 by the Texas Civil Rights Project alleged that the state is defying federal “motor voter” laws by failing to register voters who renew their driver’s licenses online.
The suit includes a group of Texans who say they believed they had updated their voter registration information while using a Department of Public Safety driver’s license website – and discovered that they’d failed to do so only when trying to vote, after it was too late to make the necessary changes.
The case is still in the early stages, but it alleges that Texas received over 1,800 complaints from voters about similar issues from September 2013 to May 2015. State Attorney General Ken Paxton said he believes Texas is in full compliance with the “motor voter” law, which is designed to make registration easier.