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AUSTIN – For a second time, a judge ruled Monday that state lawmakers violated federal voting rights protections by intentionally discriminating against minority voters when they approved a strict law requiring an approved photo ID to cast a ballot.
In a 10-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote that the state “has not met its burden” to prove that Texas legislators could have enforced the 2011 voter ID law “without its discriminatory purpose.”
At issue is Senate Bill 14, signed by former Gov. Rick Perry, which requires Texans to show one of a handful of acceptable government-issues photo IDs before they vote, including a drivers’ license, state handgun permit or U.S. passport. The measure, among the strictest in the nation, has for years gone through the federal court system for years.
“After appropriate reconsideration and review of the record … the court holds that plaintiffs have sustained their burden of proof to show that SB 14 was passed, at least in part, with a discriminatory intent in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” the judge wrote. “Racial discrimination need not be the primary purpose as long as it is one purpose.”
Monday’s ruling marks the fifth time a federal judge has found the Republican-backed photo ID law discriminated against minorities who lack or face substantial burdens to obtaining government-approved identification.
For years, Democrats have argued the GOP, which has large majorities in the Texas Legislature, passed the law to disenfranchise traditionally Democratic voting blocs.
If further reviews of the case — which is all but certain to be appealed — continue to find that Texas violated federal law, the state could be forced back under the Voting Rights Act’s purview, requiring state officials to get federal approval before making any election law changes.
The judge’s ruling also sets the stage for a potential penalty for Texas that could have a long-lasting effect.
“This is an exciting ruling, but it is no surprise,” said Myrna Perez, a deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which represented two of the groups that sued Texas, the Texas NAACP and the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus.
“Texas passed the most restrictive photo ID law in the country – a law the legislators knew would hurt minority voting rights, without any evidence justifying it, and they broke all sorts of legislative rules and norms to do it.”
Gonzales Ramos, a Corpus Christi-based judge, noted that an appeals court, which reviewed her initial ruling last year, agreed with much of her analysis about the law, including that state leaders rushed the proposal through the legislative process without the normal practices of debate and amendments.
Last year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in part with Gonzales Ramosthat the Texas voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by disproportionately burdening African American and Latino voters. The court’s majority wrote that lawmakers who drafted the legislation, Senate Bill 14, were aware of such an effect on non-white voters but approved the measure without adopting any changes that could have minimized its impact.
The panel stopped short of striking down the entire law, however. While they rejected Gonzales Ramos’s finding that the law amounted to an illegal poll tax, the appeals court called for new procedures to help potential voters in the 2016 election who lacked proper identification as listed in the legislation.
It also sent the case back to Gonzales Ramos to reconsider whether legislators acted with a discriminatory purpose. She ruled before that they had, but the Fifth Circuit wanted her to take another look at the issue with heightened standards.
On Monday, she said she had not changed her mind.
“(The plaintiffs’ evidence) -that which was left intact after the Fifth Circuit’s review-establishes that a discriminatory purpose was at least one of the substantial or motivating factors behind passage of SB 14,” she wrote. “Therefore, this Court holds, again, that SB 14 was passed with a discriminatory purpose in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Staff attorneys from his office, however, were testifying at a House Elections Committee hearing when they heard news of the ruling.
They told House lawmakers that they thought legislation currently under consideration by the Legislature would appropriately remedy the Fifth Circuit’s concerns with the voter ID law.
House Bill 2481 and Senate Bill 5 are similar proposals that would create mobile voter registration units and allow voters age 70 and older to cast a ballot if they show election workers an expired photo ID. It also allows voters younger than 70 to show an acceptable form of expired ID up to two years. To use these options, voters must sign an affidavit claiming they faced a reasonable impediment to obtaining a valid photo ID.
Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat of Dallas, rejected their analysis and questioned how modifying the law now would change a judge’s opinion that the proposal was passed in 2011 without discriminatory intent.
HB 2481 remains in committee, while the Senate approved SB 5 in late March.
Texas Democrats welcomed the long-awaited decision.
“It’s shameful that GOP leaders have been found to have intentionally discriminated at all – let alone more than in any other state in the country this decade,” Turner said in statement Monday. “It is past time that Republicans drop their defense of discriminatory photo ID laws and redistricting maps, both in the courts and in the Legislature.”
The New York Times contributed to this report
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