AUSTIN, Texas — Texas' strict voter ID law discriminates against minorities and the poor and must quickly be scrubbed of those effects before the November election, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling was a striking election-year victory for the administration of President Barack Obama, which had taken the unusual step of bringing the U.S. Justice Department into Texas to help fight the case. It's also a blow to Republican lawmakers whose 2011 law had been enforced in three prior statewide elections.
Voters will still need to show identification at the polls under the decision by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to attorneys who challenged the law, but a lower court will now also have to devise a way for Texas to accommodate those who cannot.
The 9-6 decision agreed with a lower court ruling that Texas had violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Elections experts in the long-running legal fight have testified that Hispanics were twice as likely and blacks three times more likely than whites to lack an acceptable ID under the law. They also said lower-income Texas residents were more likely to lack underlying documents to obtain a free state voting ID.
"The law is still in place but it can't be enforced as is," said Gerry Hebert, a Washington-based attorney who helped challenge the law in court. "It has to be changed. There has to be some relief afforded."
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed disappointment and must now work with opponents on putting a Band-Aid on the law with less than four months until Election Day.
"It is unfortunate that this common-sense law, providing protections against fraud, was not upheld in its entirety," Paxton said in a statement.
The decision could also have even broader ramifications: Aside from fixing the law for now, the court also ordered a later re-evaluation of whether Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in pursuing the law. If a court ultimately finds that was the case, Texas could be punished and ordered to seek federal approval before changing future voting laws, said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who also led the challenge to the law.
More than 600,000 Texas voters — or 4.5 percent of all registered voters in Texas — lacked a suitable ID under the law signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, a lower court found in 2014.
The law required Texas residents to show one of seven forms of approved identification. The state and other supporters say the Texas law prevents fraud, while opponents say there are few cases of voter fraud.
The court decision Wednesday came after a three-judge panel ruled last year that the law violated the Voting Rights Act, and Texas appealed.
Lawyers for Texas have argued that the state makes free IDs easy to obtain. They said any inconveniences or costs involved in getting one do not substantially burden the right to vote, and that the Justice Department and other plaintiffs had failed to prove that the law resulted in denying anyone the right to vote.
Opponents countered that trial testimony indicated various bureaucratic and economic burdens associated with the law — for instance, the difficulty in finding and purchasing a proper birth certificate to obtain an ID. A court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union cited testimony in other voter ID states indicating numerous difficulties faced by people, including burdensome travel and expenses to get required documentation to obtain IDs.
Texas doesn't recognize university IDs from college students as one of the seven forms of acceptable ID, but does accept concealed handgun licenses as proof of identity.
Despite being struck down by a federal district judge in 2014, the law has been enforced in recent elections. The decision came so close to Election Day that the 5th Circuit panel allowed it to be enforced that year to avoid voter confusion.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal to stop Texas from enforcing the law pending the current appeal. But the court said it could revisit the issue as the November elections approach.