In two legal victories for voting rights Thursday evening, a federal judge struck down Texas's strict voter ID law, while the Supreme Court stopped the implementation of Wisconsin's ID law.
If the Texas decision holds, it could lead to the state being brought back under federal supervision for its voting laws.
But it's far from a sure thing that the ruling will survive. A spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said that the state would appeal the decision "immediately."
Rick Hasen, a prominent election law scholar, wrote that he expects the ruling to be blocked from going into effect before the election, because courts have generally held that the rules shouldn't be changed so close to an election to avoid voter confusion.
"If the district court orders an immediate stop to Texas’s ID law, I expect the 5th Circuit (if not the Supreme Court) to reverse that," Hasen wrote.
Still, Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Justice Department was among the plaintiffs in the case, cheered the news.
"We are extremely heartened by the court's decision, which affirms our position that the Texas voter identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise," Holder said in a statement issued late Thursday. "Even after the Voting Rights Act was seriously eroded last year, we vowed to continue enforcing the remaining portions of that statute as aggressively as possible. This ruling is an important vindication of those efforts."
The Supreme Court's decision to block the Wisconsin law was 6-3, with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissenting.
In its brief order, the Supreme Court didn’t explain its reasoning. But as Hasen noted, in the past it has blocked changes to election procedures that occurred in the immediate lead-up to voting, citing the potential for voter confusion. That was a particular threat in this case: As the challengers wrote in legal filings, when an appeals court last month put the Wisconsin law into effect, some people had already voted absentee without providing ID, since that wasn't required at the time. Others live in counties that would not have a single ID-issuing offices open before the election.
Together, the two rulings may offer hope that the Voting Rights Act is strong enough to stop at least some voter ID laws—a question that voting rights advocates had been looking to these cases to help resolve.
It's been a busy period lately for voting rights in the courts—with mixed results. Twenty-four hours earlier, the Supreme Court ordered that two provisions of North Carolina's sweeping voting law can go into effect for the election. And last month, it approved Ohio's cuts to early voting.
In a scathing 147-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, wrote that the Texas law not only runs afoul of the VRA ban on racial discrimination, but also is an unconstitutional poll tax, because it requires those without ID to spend time and money to acquire one. The law's challengers — voting rights groups and the Justice Department — had presented a parade of expert witnesses at trial to make that case.
Gonzales Ramos also found that the law not only had the effect of discriminating against minorities, but was designed to do so.
"Proponents of [the law] within the 82nd Texas Legislature were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate," she wrote.
As a result of the intentional discrimination finding, if the decision stands, Texas could be bailed back into the system of federal "pre-clearance" that was ended by the Shelby decision. But it would be expected to fight aggressively against such an outcome.
According to one estimate promoted by the challengers, 1.2 million eligible Texans, disproportionately minorities, lack the ID required to vote under the law. Out-of-state driver's licenses and college IDs aren't accepted.
Texas's ID law was passed by Republicans in 2011, then blocked by a federal court in 2012 under Section 5 of the VRA. But hours after the Supreme Court neutered Section 5 last year in Shelby County v. Holder, Texas announced that the law was back in effect.
“This decision will eliminate an unnecessary and discriminatory barrier to the ballot box for hundreds of thousands of Texans,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, one of the lawyers who argued the case. “Elections in Texas will now be more free, fair, and accessible than they were a year ago.”
If the ruling is upheld, it could help Democrat Wendy Davis, who currently trails Abbott, a Republican, in the race for governor. Davis needs a strong turnout from blacks and Hispanics — who were found to be hit hardest by the law — if she's going to run Abbott close.
"This is great news for democracy," said Davis in a statement. "I call on Attorney General Greg Abbott to drop his defense of a law that a court has now called a 'poll tax' and 'discriminatory' against African-Americans and Hispanics."
As for the Wisconsin decision, which reversed an appeals court judgment earlier this week, the law's challenger had shown that an estimated 300,000 would-be Wisconsin voters—disproportionately blacks and Hispanics—lack the kind of ID the law requires.
Like Texas's ID law, Wisconsin's was challenged under the Voting Rights Act as being racially discriminatory. The U.S. Justice Department had filed a brief in support of the voting rights groups who brought the case.
Responding to the high court’s action, Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair said in a statement, “We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision, which will once again allow all registered Wisconsin voters to cast their ballot in the upcoming election – regardless of whether or not they have a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.”
The news could offer a boost to Democrat Mary Burke, who is running for governor against Republican Scott Walker, the incumbent and a staunch backer of the ID law. Burke needs a strong turnout from minority voters to have a chance of winning.