It is election season yet again and the issue of voter identification laws has reared its head once more. Texas’s new photo ID law will remain in effect for this fall’s elections, despite a previous ruling by a federal district court that found the law had been passed with “discriminatory purpose” and would likely have a disproportionate and adverse impact on minority and poor voters. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who just so happens to be the leading candidate in the state’s gubernatorial election, appealed the decision, asking for a stay of the lower court’s ruling. The Fifth Circuit granted that appeal, as did the Supreme Court.
The debate over voter ID laws has followed familiar strains of argument in recent years. Proponents argue that they decrease voter fraud and promote confidence in the electoral system, while opponents contend that voter fraud is practically nonexistent and that such laws disparately affect minorities, thus serving a partisan purpose. At the very least, the Texas case should serve as a wake-up call for voting rights.
The rapid expansion in strict voter ID laws, seen in other states such as North Carolina and Ohio, seems to be only the beginning in a line of consequences resulting from the Court’s decision last year in Shelby County v. Holder. In a contentious ruling, the Court effectively dismantled Section Four of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required most Southern states to go through the Department of Justice before enacting changes in state election law. It should hardly be surprising that Texas lawmakers were able to draft a remarkably severe law in the absence of review from the Justice Department. The fact that a photo ID from an in-state four-year college does not serve as an acceptable form of identification under this law only begins to reveal the extent of its severity.
It is truly disturbing for the future of voting rights that although the federal district court in this case had proven discriminatory intent, the Supreme Court was unwilling to interfere and granted the motion for a stay. The Court’s ruling appears to be based essentially on a precedent that the proximity of the election means that courts should refrain from effectively changing the law. The Court’s consideration of the case shows that the more pervasive issue is its strong tendency to defer to state legislatures whenever possible, even in matters where civil rights are at stake. In conceding to the legislature’s expressed interest of avoiding voter confusion and inefficient election administration, the Court has allowed a law that has officially been deemed racially discriminatory to go into effect.
Of more importance, however, is the issue of whether photo identification is even necessary. Proponents of voter ID laws commonly cite voter fraud as a justification for enforcing strict photo identification measures; it would not be too much to ask, they also argue, for individuals to acquire photo identification. Beyond the fact that minorities and the poor face disproportionate difficulties in obtaining such identification, in practice voter ID laws are rarely — if ever — about fraud. Though the lawmakers who passed the Texas measure argue it is designed to prevent people from impersonating eligible voters at the polls, the law itself does not address mail-in absentee ballots, where alleged fraud is more common than in any other type of voting. According to election statistics, allegations of absentee ballot fraud account for 24 percent of all election fraud allegations since 2000, more than any other type of fraud. And that twenty-four percent figure represents only 491 allegations of mail-in fraud over the span of the last fourteen years.
Opponents of strict voter ID laws are quick to claim that such laws purposefully discriminate. This argument is undoubtedly crucial in the fight against such laws, yet if opponents truly wish to catch the ear of lawmakers, who are all too accustomed to responding to claims of discrimination, then they should perhaps pivot toward demonstrating that the law itself doesn’t even meaningfully address what it seeks to prevent. Simply put, if legislators honestly wish to prevent voter fraud, then this law is nothing less than an example of incompetent lawmaking.
At its worst, the law is an attempt by Republican lawmakers to suppress minority votes, perhaps in reaction to the dramatic demographic changes occurring in the state. Now a majority-minority state, Texas faces an interesting political future that could see it become a battleground state. Given this context and the rapid push for new voter identification laws, the arguments offered by lawmakers and government lawyers alike begin to fall apart. Current restrictions have already created a political environment that has led to low Hispanic turnout in the state. The recent wave of Supreme Court rulings on election law, including a decision that affirmed restrictions on same-day registration and voting in North Carolina, does not bode well for the future of minorities’ civic engagement in other states. Whether in purpose or effect, these voter identification laws amount to nothing less than voter suppression.
Conor Kelly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.