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Why civil rights groups are asking Supreme Court to block Texas voter ID law

In an emergency application filed Wednesday, the groups' lawyers said the law would lead to 'massive confusion' among voters and would disenfranchise a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino voters.

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In this 2014 file photo, an election official checks a voter's photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas.

Eric Gay/AP/File

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A coalition of minority groups is asking the US Supreme Court to block Texas from enforcing its voter ID law in the approaching mid-term elections. 

In an emergency application filed on Wednesday, lawyers for the groups said that allowing the law to be enforced would lead to “massive confusion” among voters and would disenfranchise a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino voters.

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Some 600,000 Texans lack a driver’s license or other acceptable form of government-issued photo ID, according to expert testimony in the case. 

“It will be next to impossible for these Texas voters to bring themselves into compliance with [the ID law] between now and Election Day,” wrote Chad Dunn, a lawyer from Houston who is representing the plaintiffs’ coalition of civil rights groups and elected officials, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Texas League of Young Voters, and branches of the NAACP.

The emergency application was filed a day after a three-judge panel from the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a decision by a federal judge in Corpus Christi declaring the voter ID law unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said that the Republican-controlled legislature adopted the new ID law with a discriminatory purpose, and that requiring would-be voters to pay for a copy of their birth certificate amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

The judge enjoined enforcement of the law and ordered Texas to use voting procedures that existed prior to the new measure.

With early voting set to start in less than two weeks, state officials asked the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans to block the judge’s decision and allow the new law to be enforced in the upcoming elections.

The Fifth Circuit panel voted 3 to 0 to block the judge’s decision.

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“This is not a run-of-the-mill case; instead it is a voting case decided on the eve of the election,” Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote in the 11-page order.

“The judgment below substantially disturbs the election process of the State of Texas just nine days before early voting begins,” she said. “Thus, the value of preserving the status quo here is much higher than in most other contexts.”

She said that the Texas voter ID law became effective in January 2012 and had been used in three previous elections. The judge’s ruling striking down the ID law was issued last week. Such a change so close to an election was bound to cause voter confusion, Judge Clement said.

“The Supreme Court has continued to look askance at changing election laws on the eve of an election,” she said.

She noted that in recent weeks the Supreme Court had acted three times to reverse rulings that sought to change the rules for voting on the eve of the approaching elections.

On Sept. 24, the high court reversed a decision by the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati that would have required Ohio officials to add additional hours for early voting to that state’s election process.

On Oct. 1, the court reversed a decision by the Fourth Circuit in Richmond that would have required North Carolina to reinstate provisions allowing same-day voter registration and allowing out-of-precinct voting.

And on Oct. 9, the high court reversed a decision by the Seventh Circuit in Chicago that would have allowed a voter ID law in Wisconsin to be enforced in the upcoming elections.

“While the Supreme Court has not explained its reasons for issuing these stays, the common thread is clearly that the decision of the Court of Appeals would change the rules of the election too soon before the election date,” Judge Clement said.

She added that the stayed decisions cut both ways, upholding and striking down state statutes and affirming and reversing district court decisions. 

“So the timing of the decisions rather than their merits seems to be the key,” Clement said.

In his emergency application to the Supreme Court, Mr. Dunn said that the better course would be to block Texas’ voter ID law and allow anyone presenting compliant photo IDs to vote, while also allowing anyone presenting IDs authorized under the old law to vote as well.

This would be the easiest and least confusing approach, he said.

“[The Supreme Court] repeatedly has cautioned that lower courts considering last-minute changes to long-established election rules should consider whether enjoinment or enforcement is likely to produce more confusion,” Dunn said.

“Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s assertions…, the status quo in Texas remains the rules in effect prior to enactment [of the voter ID law],” he said.