This week, the US Department of Justice and the state of Texas started arguments in the first of what will be a summer-long dance between the two authorities over voting rights. There are three suits being tried in two districts over gerrymandering and Texas’s voter identification law – both of which are said to be racially motivated. In its filing, the DoJ describes the law as “exceed[ing] the requirements imposed by any other state” at the time that it passed. If the DoJ can prove the arguments in its filing, it won’t just defeat an unjust law: it could put the fiction of “voter fraud” to rest once and for all. These battles, plus parallel cases proceeding in North Carolina, hinge on proving that the states acted with explicitly exclusionary intent toward minority voters – a higher standard was necessary prior to the Supreme Court’s gutting of Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) back in January. Under Section 3, the DoJ had wide latitude to look at possible consequences of voting regulation before they were even passed – the “preclearance” provision. Ironically, because the states held to preclearance had histories of racial discrimination, some of the messier aspects of the laws’ current intentions escaped comment.
But meeting that higher standard of explicit exclusionary intent comes with the opportunity to show some of the many skeptical Americans the ugly racism behind Republican appeals to “fairness” and warnings about fraud. Progressives have tried, and mostly failed, to show the institutional racism underpinning the sordid history behind voter ID laws; that may have been too subtle. In courts in Texas and North Carolina, the DoJ will make the jump from accusations that laws have a racial impact to straight-up calling voter ID laws racist.
This ought to be interesting.
The DoJ filing in Texas lays it all out pretty clearly, putting the voter ID law in context of a concerted legislative strategy to deny representation to the state’s growing Hispanic population, including Republicans advancing more and more aggressive voter ID bills over the years. The filing points to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that laced the floor debates over the law, and to the measures taken by the Republican-controlled state house to limit the participation of Democratic minority lawmakers in considering or amending the legislation (the bill was heard in front of a special committee selected by the governor, on an expedited schedule). And, the DoJ notes, lawmakers produced “virtually no evidence during or after enactment of SB 14 that in-person voter impersonation – the only form of election fraud addressed by the identification requirements of SB 14 – was a serious problem.”