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Supreme Court clears Texas voter-ID law

It's the first time in recent history the courts have approved voting restrictions found to be racially discriminatory.
A voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas on Feb. 26, 2014.
A voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas on Feb. 26, 2014.
It was just 10 days ago that voting-rights advocates had reason to celebrate developments in Texas. U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had eviscerated the Lone Star State's voter-ID law, issuing a powerful ruling condemning the restrictions imposed by Texas Republicans without cause. Among other things, the district court concluded that the measures violated both the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the constitutional prohibition against poll taxes.
The success for voting supporters, however, was short lived. On Tuesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals re-imposed the restrictions for this year's elections, and over the weekend, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, Zach Roth reported on Saturday:

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.

It's worth emphasizing that the appeals focused largely on a procedural question: the so-called "Purcell principle" discourages judicial intervention on elections laws close to the election itself. There was some debate, however, about what constituted the actual change -- the imposition of a pointless voter-ID law, requiring Texans to show documentation they've never needed to show before, or the move away a voter-ID law that was expected to be in place for the 2014 elections.
Lyle Denniston's report added, "This apparently was the first time since 1982 that the Court has allowed a law restricting voters' rights to be enforced after a federal court had ruled it to be unconstitutional because it intentionally discriminated against minorities."
Roth went on to note that "more than 600,000 Texas voters, disproportionately minorities, don't have the kind of ID required under the law." According to the district court, Texas Republicans deliberately crafted the law to discriminate against minority communities, though the conservative appellate judges were unmoved by the findings.
Early voting in Texas begins this morning.
Of particular interest in this case was the six-page dissent from Justice Ginsburg, who seemed eager to condemn the majority's findings.
Elections-law expert Rick Hasen wrote a piece for Slate on the dissent, which was fairly broad in its scope.

...Justice Ginsburg highlighted the large discriminatory effects of the law. Texas had what Justice Ginsburg called "the strictest regime in the country," with many forms of identification such as college student and veterans ID cards unacceptable. Unlike other states, Texas did not have an exemption in the law for those who were too poor to afford the certified birth certificate or other documents necessary to get the "free" ID card -- a card which Justice Ginsburg said Texas did not let people know was widely available. Justice Ginsburg also highlighted the trial court's findings that there were hundreds of thousands of voters potentially unable to get IDs because they were hours away from the government offices issuing IDs. The state had not made reasonable efforts to get IDs into the hands of everyone who wanted them. Importantly, Ginsburg concluded that the effect of the law in its entirety would be to diminish voter confidence in the system. "The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is 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," she wrote.

Note, this is not the end of the road for the underlying controversy. Both the 5th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the emergency injunction, answering the question of whether the voter-suppression policy will in place for the 2014 cycle. The question about the law's overall legality, however, is still being litigated -- and may even end up before the high court again.