It was trumpeted as a victory for voting rights, but this week’s ruling that Texas’ restrictive voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act — on the eve of the act’s 50th anniversary — was actually something of a defeat. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw it all coming. On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Texas’ Senate Bill 14, which requires voters to show photo ID when voting in person, had a “discriminatory effect” on minority voters and thus violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. But the court rejected the claim that the Texas Legislature had a “discriminatory purpose” when it passed the law, a determination the court said requires more “contemporary evidence” that legislators intended to discriminate against black and Latino voters. Last October, when the same case made a short trip to the Supreme Court to determine if S.B. 14 should go into effect before the 2014 election, Ginsburg had dire words for the law. A majority of the justices decided to let it go into effect, but Ginsburg disagreed. “The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law,” Ginsburg wrote, “one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”
That’s the Texas law in a nutshell. But after Wednesday’s decision, Ginsburg’s observation that the law is “purposefully discriminatory” is no more. The court threw that finding back to the lower court for a second look, asking it to apply a stricter standard to determine legislators’ true motives in passing the voter ID law.
But just about everything else Ginsburg said in October is still true. Like the fact that Texas’ voter ID law is “the strictest regime in the country” — so strict it would have kept about 4.5 percent of all Texas voters, most of them minorities, from the polls. Or the fact that it imposed a financial burden on poor residents who lacked proper documentation to obtain the required IDs. Or the fact that a separate, three-judge panel had already ruled in 2012 that the law, if implemented, would have a “retrogressive effect” on blacks and Latinos — that is, it would effectively roll back the advances they had made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.