One of the toughest voter ID laws in the country might soon be back in use, only this time with a stamp of approval from the Department of Justice. On Wednesday, the department submitted a brief to the U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, in support of the state’s Senate Bill 5. The legislation is currently facing a lawsuit in that court from plaintiffs who claim it discriminates on the grounds of race. In its current form, it requires voters to have an authorized photo ID—driver’s license, passport, military identification, or gun permit—or a signed affidavit and other identifying documentation, like a utility bill, in order to cast a ballot. This is the third time a Texas voter ID law has gone through the courts, each time through Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who in 2014 called a 2011 bill’s even stricter ID requirement—it didn’t offer affidavits as an option—a “poll tax without the tax.”
Ramos’s conclusion that the law represented such a tax, because it imposed the cost of acquiring identification on would-be voters, has since been overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court. Her finding that the law had discriminatory effects, however, was upheld by that court, a finding that paved the way for the creation of the new, more relaxed S.B. 5.
Under former President Barack Obama, the Justice Department was a party in the lawsuit against that 2011 bill, S.B. 14, and filed key briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. The department argued then that the law not only had a discriminatory effect, but that its passage after Texas state lawmakers scrutinized racial differences in access to identification also constituted a discriminatory intent. The intent question was important: Since the Supreme Court struck down federal preclearance of state election laws in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, one of the few ways courts can bring states back under strict federal review is by finding that they have intentionally discriminated against certain voters.