Strict voter ID requirements are back in force in Texas after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals intervened late Tuesday to stay an order from a district court judge that found the law had been written with an “unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” The three-judge panel cited U.S. Supreme Court admonitions against instilling confusion by changing voting rules too close to an election.
The ruling [PDF] — which reinstates a law that infamously allows some forms of identification, like gun permits, but disqualifies others, such as a current student ID — comes less than a week before early voting begins in Texas.
District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had called the Texas law akin to an “unconstitutional poll tax” because of the steep costs of obtaining state-sanctioned identification for voters who found themselves without an ID the law deemed proper. Evidence presented before the court showed that more than 600,000 Texas voters had lost ballot access since the ID statute took effect.
Advocates of the law say it is necessary to counteract voter fraud, even though it has not been a major problem to date. Among the 62 million votes cast in Texas over the last 14 years, there have been only two documented cases of in-person fraud, according to court records.
In suspending the Ramos ruling, the Appeals Court said the “value of preserving the status quo” trumped other considerations.
Invoking the recent decision on the Wisconsin ID law, the appellate justices said that no matter the outcome, the Supreme Court had implied that timing was everything. “The stayed decisions have both upheld and struck down state statutes and affirmed and reversed district court decisions,” said the 5th Circuit ruling, “so the timing of the decisions rather than their merits seems to be the key."
The difference, of course, is that, in the case of Wisconsin, keeping the status quo meant preserving ballot access for hundreds of thousands of voters; in Texas, reinstating ID requirements that initially took effect in 2012, keeps more than a half-million voters away from the polls.
Last week, a report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office found that states that toughened voter ID laws saw steeper drops in voter turnout than those that did not — with disproportionate declines in participation among young and African-American voters.
Lawyers for groups challenging the Texas law have vowed to appeal the latest decision to the Supreme Court. The High Court has proven somewhat unpredictable in recent weeks, allowing for new voter restrictions in Ohio and North Carolina, while blocking parts of the Wisconsin law.
The Department of Justice had also been involved in the Texas case, but has yet to weigh in on the latest decision.