Officials in Texas said they would rush ahead with a controversial voter ID law that critics say will make it more difficult for ethnic minority citizens to vote, hours after the US supreme court released them from anti-discrimination constraints that have been in place for almost half a century. The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, declared that in the light of the supreme court’s judgment striking down a key element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act he was implementing instantly the voter ID law that had previously blocked by the Obama administration. “With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Photo identification will now be required when voting in elections in Texas.” The provocative speed with which Texas has raced to embrace its new freedoms underlines the high-stakes nature of the supreme court ruling. Civil rights leaders declared the judgment to be a major setback to the fight against race discrimination in the south that has been a running sore in the US since the civil war. “This is devastating,” the reverend Al Sharpton told MSNBC. Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, called the outcome “outrageous. The court’s majority put politics over decades of precedent and the rights of voters. We are more vulnerable to the flood of attacks we have seen in recent years.”
Experts in voting rights laws warned that the supreme court’s 5-to-4 majority ruling would encourage local jurisdictions such as Texas to implement measures that could disenfranchise minority voters. Under the now moribund section four of the Voting Rights Act, Texas and eight other mainly southern states as well as counties in other parts of the country, were listed as being subject to “pre-clearance” – in other words, they were barred from tampering with electoral procedures without prior federal approval.
Research by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has shown that pre-clearance has consistently protected minority voters from discrimination. In the past 15 years, Brennan found, the Justice Department has blocked election changes from the listed jurisdictions 86 times, 43 of those in the past decade.
Myrna Pérez, author of the Brennan report, said that the most dangerous changes that could happen now were the invisible ones. “The biggest threats could come from small town officials making changes without any public notice or scrutiny – canceling an election, say, or moving the location of a polling station a week before election day.”
She added: “We will be asking people to keep vigilant.”