A federal appeals court will let Texas continue using its new voter ID law for elections in November, temporarily blocking a lower-court ruling that said changes adopted by the Legislature in May couldn’t fix a 2011 law that was drafted to intentionally discriminate against minority voters.
In a 2-1 ruling issued late Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Texas can continue requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls while state officials appeal last month’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi.
Ramos issued an injunction Aug. 23 that permanently barred Texas from enforcing its voter ID requirements, saying the Republican-drafted law violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution because it was “enacted with discriminatory intent — knowingly placing additional burdens on a disproportionate number of Hispanic and African-American voters,” who tend to support Democrats.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded by asking the 5th Circuit to block Ramos’ ruling while his lawyers work to try to overturn it on appeal.
In granting Paxton’s request, the divided appeals court panel said changes to the voter ID law appeared to solve any problems for voters.
Under Senate Bill 5, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on June 1, registered voters without the required ID could still cast a ballot by showing a paycheck, utility bill or other document that lists a name and address and by signing a “declaration of reasonable impediment” stating why they couldn’t obtain photo identification.
The panel emphasized, however, that its order was made after an initial review of the arguments and wouldn’t be binding when the appeals court decides whether to overturn or support Ramos’ decision.
“A temporary stay will allow this court to hear oral arguments and rule on the merits while preserving the status quo,” Justices Jennifer Walker Elrod and Jerry Smith said, adding that a delay now “will minimize confusion among both voters and trained election officials.”
The court also set oral arguments for the week of Dec. 4.
The ruling means the Texas voter ID law, with the impediment declaration and loosened ID standards, will be in place for the Nov. 7 election on seven proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as elections planned by several school districts.
Writing in dissent, Justice James Graves Jr. said he wouldn’t have allowed Texas to continue using its voter ID law at this stage of the appeal.
In a similar case in 2016, Graves said, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out North Carolina’s voter ID law — even after it had been amended by lawmakers — because the underlying law was enacted with the intent to discriminate against minority voters, and “laws passed with discriminatory intent inflict a broader injury and cannot stand.”
“In light of the 4th Circuit’s decision,” Graves wrote, “I am unconvinced that the state is likely to succeed on the merits.”
Paxton said he was pleased that the state’s voter ID law will remain in effect for the upcoming elections.
“Safeguarding the integrity of our election process is essential to preserving our democracy, and the voter ID law provides simple protections to ensure our elections accurately reflect the will of voters in Texas,” he said.
The civil rights groups, Democratic politicians and minority voters who challenged the voter ID law have several options. They could ask all 14 judges on the 5th Circuit to review Tuesday’s ruling, ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it or choose to proceed to the oral arguments. They also could ask the full court to weigh the appeal instead of a typical three-judge panel.
Chad Dunn, a lawyer for some of those plaintiffs, said he and other lawyers are still considering their options and expect to decide in about a week.
“We’ve expected all along that the full 5th Circuit, and ultimately the Supreme Court, will have to weigh in on this case, and nothing has changed,” he said.
In the meantime, the 5th Circuit’s ruling stopped all proceedings before Ramos, who was beginning work on the final question in the case — whether she should require Texas to seek federal approval for changes to its election laws after finding that the voter ID law was intended to discriminate against minority voters.
That inquiry was still in its early stages, having been delayed in part by Hurricane Harvey.