The Republican Party fares much better in state and midterm national elections than in presidential election years. There’s an obvious reason: Fewer people vote in state and off-year elections, and these electorates tend to be whiter and more affluent. So it’s really no surprise that at the state level, Republicans have been passing laws that attempt to suppress the vote in all elections, so that every electorate looks like the whiter, richer off-year electorate. On Wednesday, however, a major Fifth Circuit decision dealt a serious blow to these efforts. Much of Texas’ particularly draconian voter-ID law was struck down, and the decision will almost certainly remain in effect in November. Even more important, the court identified the core problem with these laws: Their vote suppression is racially discriminatory.
Texas’ SB 14 was arguably the most stringent voter-ID law in the country. The problems with this type of law are manifest. On the one hand, voter impersonation fraud is essentially non-existent in practice and has virtually no chance of affecting an election even in theory. And on the other, these requirements fall disproportionately on racial minorities and the poor. So these laws have racially disparate effects while providing negligible legitimate benefits.
Texas’ law, and the similar ones being enacted by other state legislatures, are not just bad public policy — they also run afoul of federal law. While the Roberts court struck down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Section 2 of the Act — which forbids racially discriminatory state voting practices — remains in effect. The Fifth Circuit is a conservative, Republican-controlled court, and yet a 9-6 majority found that SB 14 violated the Voting Rights Act.
The court did not decide the question of whether the law was passed with a discriminatory purpose, sending that question back to the lower courts. But it did find that the law had a discriminatory effect, which was enough to violate federal voting rights law.