The battle over Texas’s controversial new voter identification bill should be over. Instead, it appears to be heating up. Senate Bill 14 amends the Texas Election Code, requiring voters to present an approved form of photo identification to cast a ballot in state elections. Voters may rely on most forms of commonly-used government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. Voters who are unwilling, or unable, to pay for identification are also covered; the bill creates a new form of identification called an “election identification certificate” which can be obtained at no cost from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Both the Texas House and Senate approved the bill and its photo identification requirements, following months of heated debate across the state. And, on May 27, Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law. Notwithstanding any post-enactment court challenges, gubernatorial endorsement is the final step in the legislative process—or at least that’s how things usually work in Texas.
But SB14 is different. Despite obtaining both legislative and executive approval—the only levels of approval normally required when enacting legislation—the photo identification law will not go into effect in 2012 unless it overcomes one final hurdle: federal preclearance.
Passed in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was designed to stop discriminatory voting practices like poll taxes and literacy tests. To combat widespread disenfranchisement of black voters, Congress imposed significant federal oversight of elections in states that routinely employed discriminatory voting schemes. These states—known as covered jurisdictions—must obtain federal approval of any significant changes made to their voting laws. Voting changes in covered jurisdictions may not be enforced until this occurs.
Texas became a covered jurisdiction in 1972, and is one of nine states and dozens of smaller subdivisions—primarily counties—currently on the covered jurisdiction list. SB14’s voter identification requirements are just the type of changes that demand federal oversight, so earlier this summer, Texas officials requested federal preclearance from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).