A divided Supreme Court early Saturday morning let a new Texas voter ID law take effect, the latest ruling in a series of decisions on voting laws in the states just weeks before midterm elections.
Issued shortly before dawn, the high court’s decision following a flurry of last-minute motions means Texas voters starting Oct. 20 must present one of several forms of photo identification in order to cast a ballot.
“We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that Texas' voter ID law should remain in effect for the upcoming election,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office said in a statement. Spokeswoman Lauren Bean added that the state “will continue to defend the voter ID law.”
The court’s majority did not issue a written explanation for the ruling issued at about 5 a.m. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote emphatically on behalf of herself and two other dissenters.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg in dissent. The court’s order did not explicitly say how the other six justices voted, though at least five must have agreed with the decision.
The liberal group Alliance for Justice denounced the ruling as a “big setback for voting rights,” while prominent Democrat Donna Brazile declared the high court’s actions are “so hurtful to democracy.”
The decision extends the conservative-dominated Supreme Court’s role in the 2014 elections, as justices had previously reversed trial judges or appellate courts to let restrictive voter eligibility laws take effect in Ohio and North Carolina.
In Wisconsin, the court blocked state officials from implementing new voter ID requirements. In all of the cases, the laws may remain subject to scrutiny under continued litigation; the immediate question was whether the laws would be allowed to take effect for the fast-approaching November election.
The high court’s role this campaign season reflects, in part, the maturing of litigation over voter eligibility laws adopted by myriad states in the last several years. Critics pointedly note that a court controlled by five Republican appointees has empowered voter eligibility laws that critics say target minority voters.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, moreover, had an indirect hand in the state actions. The court’s 5-4 decision in 2013 striking down a key plank of the Voting Rights Act effectively gave a green light to the states seeking to regulate voting without first getting federal approval, called preclearance.
“These measures likely would not have survived federal preclearance,” Ginsburg said in the North Carolina case.
Beyond the allegations of judicial partisanship, the Supreme Court’s voter eligibility decisions reflect justices’ stated desire to avoid last-minute confusion over election rules.
“The Supreme Court has continued to look askance at changing election laws on the eve of an election,” noted Judge Edith Brown Clement of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
The Texas law, dubbed SB 14 and passed in 2011, requires voters to submit one of a limited number of ID documents, including a driver’s license, a military ID or a passport.
Prior to passage of the law, Texas voters only had to provide a voter registration card or another form of identity proof, like a utility bill
The legal maneuvering over the Texas law kicked into high gear Oct. 11, when U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos imposed an injunction blocking the law from taking effect. The Corpus Christi, Texas-based trial judge acted following release of her 147-page opinion, in which she concluded the Texas law was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Ramos, appointed to the bench in 2011 by President Barack Obama, likened the Texas voter identification law to a “poll tax” that would disproportionately hinder minorities from voting.
In an opinion written by Clement, a George W. Bush appointee, the Fifth Circuit on Oct. 14 subsequently reversed Ramos and reinstated the Texas law by issuing a stay. Clement noted the Supreme Court “has repeatedly instructed courts to carefully consider the importance of preserving the status quo on the eve of an election.”
The decision prompted opponents, including the Obama administration, to file three emergency applications asking the Supreme Court to remove the appellate court’s stay on the district court’s order.
“Without this court’s intervention, voters across Texas will be irreparably harmed,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wrote, citing the “potential disenfranchisement of over 600,000 Texas voters.”
The emergency applications were submitted to Justice Antonin Scalia, who oversees emergency issues in Texas and other Fifth Circuit states. Scalia forwarded the application to all nine justices.
Texas officials argued the requirement has not caused problems.
“Texas has already held three statewide elections, five special elections and countless local elections under SB 14, and the number of complaints and incidents of voters being turned away is vanishingly small,” Abbott argued in a brief.
The Supreme Court’s decision Saturday agreed with Texas and upheld the stay imposed by the appellate court.
In late September, the high court in a 5-4 decision removed a judge’s order that would have restored early voting in Ohio. In a 7-2 decision issued Oct. 8, the court effectively blocked restoration of same-day voting in North Carolina.
In both states, opponents had contended the new laws effectively impeded minority voters by stopping same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.
“African American voters disproportionately used those electoral mechanisms,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit noted, adding that the North Carolina revisions “thus disproportionately impacts African American voters.”
The Supreme Court took a different tack with Wisconsin, declaring in a 6-3 decision issued Oct. 10 that Wisconsin could not implement a law requiring voters to present photo identification.