by Marc Morial
“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.” – United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black
A federal court this week dealt a blow to Texas’ efforts to disenfranchise voters of color.
Texas’ draconian 2011 voter identification law has been struck down for the fifth time. Among the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, are the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who have worked tirelessly to defend voting rights across the nation.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas determined the law intentionally discriminates against Black and Latino voters. The determination raises the possibility that Texas voting procedures could be placed under federal supervision, as it was from the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act until the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 gutting of the Act with its Shelby v. Holder decision.
The court found that when the Texas legislature considered the bill, the lawmakers were aware that only two people, out of 20 million votes cast in the previous decade, had been convicted of in-person voter fraud. Other, more common forms of voter fraud were not addressed by the bill. The law was easily the most restrictive in the nation with respect to permitted identification. A Texas state handgun license – which may be legally obtained by some non-U.S. citizens — is a permissible form of identification under the law, while a federal or state government ID, nor a student ID, are not.
Monday was the second time Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had ruled on the law. At the 2014 trial, experts testified to Texas shameful history of suppressing minority voters, from reconstruction up to the present day Between 1895 and 1944, Texas permitted all-white primary elections. From 1905 to 1970, Texas voters were prohibited from taking people with them to the polls to assist them in reading and interpreting the ballot. Between 1902 and 1966, Texas required a poll tax.
And even though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put Texas’ voting procedures under federal preclearance, Texas continued discriminatory practices. When to voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, Waller County – home to historically Black Prairie View A&M University – prohibited students from voting unless they or their families owned property in the county. A court struck down the requirement in 1979, but Waller County continued attempting to enforce the law as recently as 2003. Waller County violated the preclearance requirement during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for President, improperly rejecting voter registrations and placing limits on the number of new registrations. The witnesses also noted that in every redistricting cycle since 1970, Texas has been found to have violated the Voting Rights Act with racially gerrymandered districts.
“Minorities continue to have to overcome fear and intimidation when they vote,” Judge Ramos wrote in her 2014 decision. “Reverend Johnson testified that there are still Anglos at the polls who demand that minority voters identify themselves, telling them that if they have ever gone to jail, they will go to prison if they vote. Additionally, there are poll watchers who dress in law enforcement-style clothing for an intimidating effect.”
While we join other civil rights groups in celebrating the court’s decision, Texas persistence in continuing its long history of racial discrimination against voters is disheartening. We call on Texas’ leadership to heed the blindingly clear message that voter suppression is unacceptable in 21st Century America, and move forward with a commitment to equality and opportunity.