Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in March.
A federal court on Thursday struck down a Texas law that would have required voters to show government-issued photo identification before casting their ballots in November, ruling that the law would hurt turnout among minority voters and impose “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor” by charging those voters who lack proper documentation fees to obtain election ID cards.
The three-judge panel in United States District Court for the District of Columbia called Texas’ voter-identification law the most stringent of its kind in the country. Gov. Rick Perry and the state’s attorney general, Greg Abbott, vowed to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court.
The judges’ ruling came two days after another three-judge panel in the same court found that the Texas Legislature had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in drawing up electoral district maps, citing the same section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Known as Senate Bill 14, the state’s voter-identification law requires voters who show up at the polls to identify themselves with one of five forms of ID, including a driver’s license or a United States passport. Those lacking one of the five types of identification must obtain an election identification certificate, a government-issued card similar to a driver’s license. Prospective voters would need to travel to a state Department of Public Safety office to get an election ID card, and, although it is free, they would have to verify their identity to obtain one, in some cases paying $22 for a certified copy of their birth certificate.
In its unanimous 56-page ruling, the federal judges found that the fees and the cost of traveling for those voters lacking one of the five forms of ID disproportionately affected the poor and minorities. “Moreover, while a 200- to 250-mile trip to and from a D.P.S. office would be a heavy burden for any prospective voter, such a journey would be especially daunting for the working poor,” the decision read, referring to the dozens of counties in Texas that do not have a D.P.S. office.
Mr. Perry and other Texas Republicans had argued that voter identification laws were constitutional methods of preventing voter fraud, and they believed the courts could not legally consider factors like poverty when determining whether a law complies with the Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Perry criticized the judges and the Obama administration. “Chalk up another victory for fraud,” he said in a statement. “Today, federal judges subverted the will of the people of Texas and undermined our effort to ensure fair and accurate elections.”
The United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., who had told the N.A.A.C.P. in July that the Texas law’s requirements amounted to a poll tax, praised the ruling. “The court’s decision today and the decision earlier this week on the Texas redistricting plans not only reaffirm — but help protect — the vital role the Voting Rights Act plays in our society to ensure that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted,” he said in a statement.
The wave of voter ID laws enacted by Republican-led state governments in recent years has created a polarizing debate.
Supporters, mostly conservatives, argue that such restrictions are needed to prevent fraud. While there is no evidence of significant levels of voter impersonation — the sort of fraud that would be addressed by ID requirements — they argue that it is just going undetected. (lol k - op) But critics, mostly liberals, say voter impersonation fraud is rare and contend that the restrictions are a veiled effort to suppress turnout by legitimate voters who are less likely to have a photo ID card and who tend to support Democrats, like students, the indigent and minorities.
Mr. Perry signed the voter identification bill in May, but it had not taken effect because Texas and other states with a history of racial discrimination cannot make changes to their voting procedures without first receiving so-called preclearance, a requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The case could add to pressure on the question of whether Section 5 of the act is still constitutional. The Supreme Court, which is already hearing an affirmative action case in its coming term, is deciding whether to review an appeals court decision upholding the Voting Rights Act in the face of a constitutional challenge by Alabama. Texas is also challenging the constitutionality of the law in the voter ID case, one of a handful of states to do so recently, including South Carolina, Florida and Alaska.
While opponents of voter ID laws celebrated the ruling, it was narrowly focused on the Texas law and emphasized that it should not be read as implying that all voter ID laws should be blocked by Section 5. The ruling cited with approval the Justice Department’s decision to allow Georgia to implement a less restrictive version of such a measure, saying the difference between the state laws was “stark.”