Opponents of Texas’ strict voter ID law are likely to get their day in court this September—meaning the controversial measure could be struck down before the November election.
Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos indicated in a hearing Wednesday that she was reluctant to delay the trial until 2015, according to Jose Garza, a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus (MALC), which is among the plaintiffs challenging the law, known as S.B. 14.
“The judge is fairly adamant that because of the impending election, it’s important to have a trial on S.B. 14 as early as possible,” Garza told reporters Wednesday afternoon, after attending the hearing. “And in her mind, that appears to be Sept. 2.”
Garza said it’s “likely” that the judge will officially set Sept. 2 as the trial date at a hearing this Friday.
Getting rid of the law before November could be a boon to Wendy Davis, whose campaign for governor is working with allies to register hundreds of thousands of new voters, mostly blacks and Latinos. Rep. Pete Gallego, who faces a close race in the heavily Latino 23rd district, could also benefit.
The U.S. Justice Department, which is also challenging the law under the Voting Rights Act, had asked for the delay, in order to have time to gather and analyze the government data that, it says, will show that the law disproportionately hurts blacks and Hispanics. But MALC and other challengers want a trial this fall, because they’re worried that voters could be disenfranchised in November if the law is left standing.
Local elections in the state last November, which also included several ballot initiatives, produce scattered reports of problems at the polls. but turnout was under 10%, and likely lower for minorities, making it difficult to get a reliable picture of how the law will impact voters.
The Justice Department’s position is understandable. To make its case, it will need access to a scattered range of federal and state data: Information from both the State and Defense Departments, since passports and military IDs are among the forms of identification allowed under the law; data from Social Security Administration to see which voters are exempted from the ID requirement because of a disability; and state data about driver’s license and non-driver’s IDs. It will need to analyze that information, then disseminate it to the other plaintiffs. And the process hasn’t even started yet.
It’s not helped by the fact that Texas is currently refusing a request by the plaintiffs for the emails and other internal communications of lawmakers working to pass the ID measure in 2012.
“We want to prove that there was an intent to discriminate in the development of [the law], and so internal communications are an important part of evaluating that issue,” said Garza.
Texas is citing legislative privilege. A hearing on the issue is set for next month.
If the plaintffs prevail, the case could well wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court. That means it could have a major impact in determining whether the weakened Voting Rights Act can be used to challenge voter ID laws and other restrictive voting measures—something that's currently an open question.