It’s been nearly three years since the U.S. Supreme Court stuck its gavel in where it didn’t belong and gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Predictably, states with histories of vote-suppression quickly adopted fresh laws that have made it harder for the poor and for minorities — groups that often overlap — to exercise their right to vote. Some states now require costly or hard-to-obtain voter IDs, while others have reduced the days and hours during which voters can register or cast their ballots. A welcome decision Wednesday by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals buttresses the argument that the Supreme Court underestimated the willingness of some states to abridge the right to vote. The 5th Circuit held that Texas’ law requiring IDs discriminated against African Americans and Latinos, who were less likely to have ready access to the narrow list of accepted forms of identification (including passports and driver’s licenses), and ordered a lower court to find a fix before the November election. It also asked the lower court judge to consider anew whether Texas legislators crafted the law intentionally to suppress minority voting; if the court finds it did so, Texas could be forced back into the ranks of jurisdictions that require the federal Justice Department’s permission before changing or adopting voting laws.
Whether all eligible Texas voters will have equal access to the ballot box for the upcoming presidential election is unknowable at this point. Beyond that, Texas is far from the only state to have adopted laws that serve to make it more difficult for some Americans to vote. At least 16 other states, nearly all of them in the South and Midwest and run by Republican-dominated legislatures, have adopted stringent voting restrictions. It’s no coincidence that the classes of people most affected by the laws also tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
Why the push for voter ID laws? Ostensibly, it’s been done in the name of deterring voter fraud. But voter fraud is a chimera. Studies have found that voter-impersonation cases are rare — in fact, the court in the Texas case noted that only two cases of in-person fraud had been uncovered out of 20 million votes cast over a decade before the ID law was passed. But expert testimony showed that 608,000 registered voters now lack the required ID to vote. So the fix for the nonexistent problem disenfranchised enough people to populate a small city.