Lawyers for minority voters and politicians asked a federal judge Wednesday to void the Texas voter ID law, saying it is the next logical step for a statute found to be discriminatory.
The lawyers also said they will ask U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to require Texas officials to get U.S. Justice Department approval for any future changes to election law or voting procedures to guard against additional attempts to discriminate against minority voters.
Wednesday’s hearing was called to chart the next steps in the case after Ramos ruled in April that the state’s 2011 voter ID law was written by Republicans to intentionally discriminate against minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats.
Of particular concern is whether, and how, Texas should be penalized for enacting a law that was found to violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
Much of Wednesday’s courtroom conference focused on recent action by the Legislature to soften the requirements of the state’s voter ID law.
Senate Bill 5, signed into law last week by Gov. Greg Abbott, was meant to fix problems Ramos had identified with the 2011 law, Texas Deputy Solicitor General Matthew Frederick said.
“We are trying to have a reasonable, fair photo voter ID law that allows everyone to vote,” Frederick said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went further in an advisory, filed last week in Ramos’ court, arguing that SB 5 will provide a safety valve that allows registered voters to cast a ballot if they couldn’t reasonably obtain a government-issued photo ID.
“Senate Bill 5 cures any alleged discriminatory effect caused by the state’s photo voter ID requirement,” Paxton wrote.
Plaintiffs lawyer Ezra Rosenberg disagreed.
“SB 5 still bears the discriminatory intent of (the original law) because it still visits burdens on those groups your honor has found were discriminated against,” Rosenberg told Ramos.
Plaintiffs lawyer Chad Dunn said SB 5 was enacted with the same legislative problems Ramos had identified in the original voter ID law, including no study to determine the bill’s impact on minority voters and the rejection of amendments proposed by black and Latino lawmakers to soften the bill’s effect.
The two sides also disagreed on how best to proceed.
Lawyers for minority voters pressed for a two-step process, with a first round of briefs on whether SB 5 cured the problems with voter ID, followed by briefs on remaining issues, including proposed remedies.
Frederick pressed for a single round of briefs on proposed remedies, arguing that Ramos is operating under a tight deadline because state election officials need a decision by Aug. 10, when voter certificates are finalized and sent to each county for printing. The certificates should include instructions on what voter ID requirements will be in place for 2018, he said.
Ramos came to no conclusions on how next to proceed, ordering all sides to provide follow-up briefs by Monday.
Under the 2011 law, voters had to present a government-issued photo ID such as a driver’s license or a license to carry a handgun.
Under SB 5, a registered voter who lacks a photo ID can cast a ballot after showing documents that list his or her name and address, including a voter registration certificate, utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.
Such voters would have to sign a “declaration of reasonable impediment” stating that they couldn’t acquire a photo ID due to a lack of transportation, lack of a birth certificate, work schedule, disability, illness, family responsibility, or lost or stolen ID.
Voters who lie on the declaration can be prosecuted for a state jail felony, with a maximum of two years in jail.
Democratic lawmakers opposed SB 5, saying it will still suppress voting, particularly among those who fear potential jail time for making a mistake on the declaration. Republicans said the measure will help ensure ballot integrity.