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Supreme Court approves Texas voter ID law

The Supreme Court has approved Texas's strict voter ID law for the upcoming election, potentially risking disenfranchisement for thousands of Texans.

The Supreme Court has approved Texas’s strict voter ID law for use in the upcoming election. The decision, which clears a path for a law, which this month was deemed a poll tax by a federal judge, that could put thousands of Texas voters in danger of being disenfranchised.

The brief order was released early Saturday morning, with Justices Scalia filing the majority opinion, and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Ginsburg issuing a strong dissent.

“The prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote, undermines “public confidence in elections.”

Attorney General Eric Holder also expressed his disappointment in the outcome.

"It is a major step backward to let stand a law that a federal court, after a lengthy trial, has determined was designed to discriminate," Holder said in a statement. "It is true we are close to an election, but the outcome here that would be least confusing to voters is the one that allowed the most people to vote lawfully."

Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a proponent of the law, issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court's order.

"We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that Texas' voter ID law should remain in effect for the upcoming election. The State will continue to defend the voter ID law and remains confident that the district court's misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter ID laws are a legal and sensible way to protect the integrity of elections," wrote Abbott in an official statement.

Though the court did not rule on the merits of the law, the news that it will be in place for the election is a loss for the US Justice Department and civil rights groups who had brought the challenge.

The law was struck down last week by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who ruled that it intentionally discriminated against minorities, and that it was an unconstitutional poll tax. But a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously stayed Gonzales Ramos’s injunction blocking the law, citing what’s known as the Purcell principle—the idea that courts should avoid the potential for confusion that could come from changing the rules so close to an election. The Supreme Court voted to uphold the appeals court’s stay.

More than 600,000 Texas voters, disproportionately minorities, don’t have the kind of ID required under the law.  

“A court of law found that Texas’ photo ID was enacted with intentional discrimination against minority voters, and yet that discrimination is being allowed to infect the November elections,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “That cannot stand. We clearly need new laws and protections to ensure our elections are free, fair, and accessible.”

According to SCOTUSblog, this was the first time since 1982 that the Supreme Court has let a law restricting voting rights be enforced after a federal court had ruled it unconstitutional. 

"The district court found the Texas ID law was intentionally discriminatory. In the September trial, the court heard from a number of Texas citizens who are unable to secure any of the limited forms of photo ID to satisfy this law.  It is both remarkable and troubling that none of those citizens will be able to vote at the polls this November," said Ryan Haygood, who directs the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the law’s challengers argued that more confusion would be caused by allowing the law to be in effect, since it requires poll workers to allow only a narrow range of IDs. And they argued that the need to stop intentional racial discrimination in voting outweighs the goal of avoiding confusion.

At the trial, the challengers presented a parade of expert witnesses and voters to make the case that those without ID face significant financial and time costs in  trying to get one. They also presented compelling evidence that the burdens to getting an ID are higher for minorities than for whites.

Texas Republicans passed the law in 2011. It was first blocked by a federal court in 2012 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which required certain states, including Texas, to “pre-clear” any voting changes with the federal government. Hours after the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder in June of 2013, Texas announced that the law was back in effect. Voting rights groups and the U.S. Justice Department then filed new challenges under Section 2 of the VRA, which was left unaffected by Shelby.

If it keeps minority voters from the polls, the law’s approval could help Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor. Abbott’s office has aggressively fought for the law in court. Abbott’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, opposes the law, and her campaign and its allies have worked to register hundreds of thousands of new minority voters.

Davis issued a statement criticizing the court's decision on Saturday: "The disappointing decision by the Supreme Court to side with Greg Abbott and keep a law other courts have said is intentionally discriminatory against African-Americans and Hispanics is one more reason it's so important all Texans exercise their right to vote starting Monday."

Saturday’s order doesn’t end the litigation over the law. After the election, it’s likely that the case will be returned to the appeals court to consider Gonzales Ramos’s judgment on the merits.

Over the last month, the Supreme Court has played a major role in setting voting rules for the election. In addition to the Texas law, it also green-lighted Ohio’s cuts to early voting and North Carolina’s elimination of same-day voter registration. but it blocked Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law. In each case, it appears to have been guided by Purcell.