US News & World Report
By Nicole Hemmer
“The right to vote: It defines our nation as a democracy.” So began the 147-page decision handed down by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos on Thursday. Ramos struck down Texas’ voter ID law, one of the strictest in the nation, calling it “an unconstitutional poll tax.” Her ruling came down the same day the Supreme Court issued a stay of Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which would have required more than 300,000 registered voters to obtain IDs in the next 36 days in order to vote in November’s election.
The laws under review are just two of the dozens of voter ID laws passed in the past few years. As Ramos’ decision shows, there is substantial evidence these laws could disenfranchise millions of Americans, disproportionately affecting minorities and the poor. Which is precisely the point: Worried they won’t be able to persuade blacks and Hispanics to vote for them, Republican legislators seek to keep them from voting at all.
These attempts to block access to the polls are both unconstitutional and immoral. But the traditional remedy for discriminatory voting laws, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was gutted by the Supreme Court last year in Shelby County v. Holder. As troubling as that ruling was in its assumption that the Voting Rights Act no longer spoke to “current conditions,” in a way it was right. Discriminatory voting patterns are no longer limited to the historical areas covered by the 1965 law. So it’s time for a new Voting Rights Act, one that covers the entire nation.
Ramos’ decision, which really is a must-read on the effects of voter ID laws, brings together an abundance of historical, statistical and personal evidence of the law’s discriminatory effects. The stories of those who have experienced disenfranchisement because of the law are the most affecting. A birth certificate is necessary to get proper ID, but for many, obtaining a copy of this document is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
Take the case of Floyd Carrier. An 84-year-old retiree, Carrier worked with his son to get a copy of his birth certificate. After a three-month wait, the birth certificate finally arrived. It was useless: His last name was misspelled, his birth date was wrong, and his first name was listed as “Florida.” To amend the document required more money, more months of waiting and more documentation, including – wait for it – a birth certificate. Several months later the amended certificate finally arrived. It said Floyd Carrier, which was an improvement, but the birth date was still wrong.
Or consider Sammie Louise Bates. Living on a fixed income, Bates has had trouble coming up with the $42 required to get her birth certificate. As she explained, “I had to put the $42.00 where it was doing the most good. It was feeding my family, because we couldn’t eat the birth certificate … [a]nd we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate, so, [I] just wrote it off.” The new law, Ramos pointed out, “makes some poor Texans choose between purchasing their franchise or supporting their family.” An unconscionable choice.
But the statistical and historical evidence was the most legally devastating. “Voter fraud” has been the bogeyman used to push through voter ID laws. In 2012, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared, “I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter ID is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system.”
The evidence presented in Ramos’ decision demonstrates that Abbott’s claims are laughably false. Voter ID laws are aimed at preventing in-person voter impersonation fraud. In the ten years prior to Texas’ voter ID law, 20 million votes were cast. In that time two people were convicted of voter impersonation fraud. To prevent a repeat of those two fraudulently cast ballots, Texas Republicans passed a law that could disenfranchise more than half a million people. The law would also increase mail-in voting, which is more susceptible to fraud.
So the law might actually increase voter fraud. But it was never actually meant to prevent it. It was meant to prevent minority voting, something Texas has been hard at work on since the 1890s. As historian O. Vernon Burton testified, every time the courts struck down one of the state’s discriminatory voting laws, Texas legislators found a new way to block minority voting. From white-only primaries to poll taxes to registration purges, Texas has been on the cutting-edge of disenfranchisement innovation for more than a century.
As this newest innovation – voter ID law – spreads across the country, it is well past time for a national Voting Rights Act that safeguards the right of all eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote. As Justice Hugo Black wrote fifty years ago in Wesberry v. Sanders, an opinion that Ramos cites, “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
This article was originally published at the US News & World Report