President Donald Trump’s administration has abandoned an Obama-era challenge to a 2011 Texas voter ID law that is among the toughest in the nation. Civil rights groups are still contesting the Texas law in federal court, but without the muscle of the federal government behind them. Here are answers to key questions about the case so far — and where it goes from here.
How did we get here?
Texas Republicans passed the measure in 2011 requiring voters to show one of seven forms of state-approved photo identification at the polls to cast a ballot. That list includes concealed handgun permits but not college IDs. There was no process to allow voters without suitable identification to sign an affidavit and cast a ballot. A federal court found an estimated 600,000 registered voters could be disenfranchised by the law, and that some minorities lacking an acceptable identification could be forced to travel up to 250 miles round trip to obtain a state voter-ID certificate.
The Obama Justice Department refused to allow for the Texas law under a section of the Voting Rights Act that required mostly southern states with a history of discrimination, including Texas, to get election changes approved by the federal government. Texas sued but a federal court in Washington blocked the law in August 2012. The law later took effect in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the section of the Voting Rights Act that required federal government preclearance.
Civil rights groups sued in 2013, and the Obama Justice Department supported them. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi struck down the law in 2014, but it was later reinstated on a temporary basis by a federal appeals court. Last year, that appeals court found the law had a discriminatory effect on minorities and ordered it to be weakened for the November election.
What does the Trump administration decision mean?
It is an early indication of how the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will approach voting rights. The move is not a surprise following Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud and Sessions’ defense of voter ID laws.
But it leaves civil rights groups without a powerful ally. Most recently, the Justice Department under Obama was instrumental in getting Texas to fully comply with the court order that softened its voter ID law for the November election. Texas was required to amend voter ID education materials, including press releases, polling location posters and websites, to correctly conform to a court mandate.
Is this case over?
Democratic U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey from Dallas and several civil rights groups say they will continue to challenge the law in court without the backing of the Trump administration.
The appeals court last year sent the case back to judge Gonzales Ramos with instructions to determine whether it was written and passed with the purpose of discriminating against minorities. The judge heard arguments on that issue Tuesday.
The case could ultimately be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court last month declined a Texas appeal seeking to restore its law, but Chief Justice John Roberts also left the door open for another appeal at a later time, once it clears Gonzales Ramos’ and other courts.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has suggested that Roberts’ comments “made it very clear that the case will be an even stronger posture for Supreme Court review” and a Trump-appointed conservative justice on the high court could further encourage the state.
What could happen next?
Judge Gonzales Ramos’ ruling is expected in the coming weeks and will likely spark another round of costly, prolonged appeals.
If she rules against Texas, it could become the first state put back under federal supervision for voting law changes since the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision weakening the Voting Rights Act. The judge could require federal approval of Texas election law changes for up to 10 years.
A federal appeals court last year found North Carolina’s law was enacted with discriminatory intent, but opted against the more sweeping step. The Obama Justice Department had argued that Texas Republicans passed the law because they felt “threatened by explosive growth in minority populations” who tend to favor Democrats.
But Texas maintains that the law was intended to combat fraud and increase public confidence in elections.
Meanwhile, Texas Republicans have proposed legislation to revise the current voter ID measure in an attempt to address problems courts have identified. The proposal would allow a voter without an ID to sign an affidavit and would impose a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison for lying on a sworn declaration.