WASHINGTON — A federal court has ruled for the first time that a strict photo identification law discriminates against poor and minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act, barring Texas from enforcing its new requirement at polling places this fall.
The decision puts a national spotlight on an election law issue that sharply divides Republicans and Democrats and one that could have an effect on who wins a close contest.
It also highlights the North-South divide on voting laws. While Northern and Western states are free to change their election laws and tighten the rules for voting, much of the South remains subject to the Voting Rights Act because of past discrimination. Before making changes, Southern officials must convince the Justice Department or a federal court that the new rules will not harm racial minorities.
Twice this week, Texas failed that test. On Tuesday, a federal court struck down the state’s new maps for congressional and legislative districts on the grounds they undercut the voting power of Latinos and African Americans.
In Thursday’s decision, a separate three-judge panel focused on how a new photo identification rule would affect the tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas who are poor, do not drive and do not have cars in their households.
In the past, Texas voters who had registered in advance could bring to the polls voter cards sent to them by the state. The new law, passed last year, would instead require a current government-issued photo identification card, such as a driver’s license, a U.S. passport, a U.S. military ID card or a license to carry a concealed handgun.
Texas’ lawyers called this requirement a “minor inconvenience.” The vast majority of Texans already had such cards in their wallets or purses, and with birth certificates and Social Security cards in hand, voters could obtain free photo ID cards at an office of the Texas Department of Public Safety, they said.
But the judges said that about a third of Texas counties did not have a Department of Public Safety office. And those offices are not open on weekends. Moreover, it costs about $22 to obtain a copy of a birth certificate, they said.
“Even the most committed citizen, we think, would agree that a 200- to 250-mile round trip — especially for would-be voters having no driver’s license — constitutes a substantial burden on the right to vote,” Judge David Tatel said in the unanimous opinion.
In January, Texas officials reported about 796,000 of its registered voters were not listed as having Department of Public Safety licenses. And according to the U.S. census, about 13% of the state’s blacks, 7% of its Latinos and 3.8% of whites lived in households without motor vehicles.
“Poorer citizens, especially those working for hourly wages, will likely be less able to take time off work to travel to a DPS office,” Tatel said. “A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges the right to vote.”
Tatel is an appointee of President Clinton. His opinion was joined by Judges Rosemary Collyer, an appointee of President George W. Bush, and Robert Wilkins, an appointee of President Obama.
Texas officials denounced the decision and promised an appeal.
“Chalk up another victory for fraud,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. “Today, federal judges subverted the will of the people of Texas and undermined our effort to ensure fair and accurate elections.”
Four years ago, Georgia and Indiana adopted photo ID laws for voting, and the Supreme Court upheld the Indiana law, but without focusing on its effect on racial minorities. Pennsylvania is enforcing a similar law this year, which was upheld by a state judge.
But Tatel called the Texas law “the most stringent in the nation” because the state did not make it easy for voters to obtain the required ID cards or offer provisional ballots on election day to those who did not bring the right cards to the polls.
The legal battle is far from over, however. Texas officials are asking the courts to overturn the part of the Voting Rights Act that subjects the South to special scrutiny. The Supreme Court is likely to consider that claim during its next term.