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Voting Rights Act Partially Overturned; Texas Implements Voter ID Law

The Supreme Court has overturned a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says this morning’s decision means a Texas voter ID law "will take effect immediately." Scroll down for updates. 

The high court struck down Section 4 of the act, which establishes a formula to identify portions of the county (primarily the South) where changes to elections must be approved by the Department of Justice. That was to ensure minority voting rights weren’t infringed upon.

From the court's opinion:

"Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in covered States have risen dramatically."

The court didn’t do away with Section 5 of the act – the portion that allows the Department of Justice to reject state laws it sees as discriminatory. Instead, the court says the new standards should be created, instead of the expanded coverage called for under Section 4.  

Background: Supreme Court Weighs Future of Voting Rights Act

In recent years, the Department of Justice has used Section 5 to fight voter ID lawsin states across the country, including Texas.

In the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts says “Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2. We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

Update: What Life Was Like for Minority Voters Before the Voting Rights Act

KUT News spoke with University of Texas Professor Eric McDaniel on what the Voting Rights Act meant for Texas’ minority population in 1965, and what its future might look like now.  McDaniel:

“For minority voters, there was really a lack of voting, in the deep South. So, one of the funny things is classic political science studies [on] voting behavior on the part of blacks argued that the reason why blacks in the South don’t vote is because they’re apathetic. They failed to realize grandfather clauses, poll tax, literacy tests, all these things were designed to keep African Americans from voting. So, for instance, in Texas, they had what was referred to as the White Primary, where basically the parties held a primary where only whites were allowed to vote.”

Update (3:45 p.m.): Surprising Facts About Texas & the Voting Rights Act

Texas was not on the original list of States to be given special scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act. In fact, Texas wouldn't appear on the list until representative Barbara Jordan helped put it there, some ten years later, in 1975. (See the remarkable testimony from the 1975 Congressional Record.)

And the act's history yields more surprises, saidRichard Murray, from the University of Houston. 

"I think it's quite likely that President Johnson, while he wanted very much to get the Voting Rights Act enacted, and wanted to subject jurisdictions, particularly in the deep South, to special coverage, didn't want his own political base, Texas, to get inflamed by being subject to the same restrictions as Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. So, the draft of the law gave an 'out' to Texas initially. And that was the case for the first ten years." 

The act's arrival in 1975 was "hugely important" because it was expanded to language minorities which had suffered a history of discrimination, which meant Texas' Hispanic population was brought under the act's protection.

This explains why Houston's Harris County has printed ballots in Vietnamese since 2004. And why Alaska appears on the list with other Southern states. (It failed to provide ballots to Native Americans in their native tongue.)

Update (1:39 p.m.): Voter ID Rule in Effect; Texas Issuing Voter ID Certificates

The officials that issue photo IDs and drivers licenses in Texas say they will begin issuing “election identification certificates” –photo ID cards designed for use at the polls.

After this morning’s ruling striking part of the Voting Rights Act, Texas implemented a law requiring voters to possess voter ID. The same law had previously been struck down by the Department of Justice, under the Voting Rights Act.)

The Texas Department of Public Safety says that starting June 26, it will issue election identification certificates free of charge to Texans lacking other forms of ID. Learn more details here

Update (12:10 a.m.): Mexican American Legislative Conference Responds

Officials with MALC say the organization and other civil rights group will most likely challenge the Texas voter ID law in court. Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement today that the Supreme Court's decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act will allow the state to implement the voter ID law immediately.

Right now, the groups are examining their options, which include filing an injunction to not use the law in upcoming elections. 

“I’m surprised, quite frankly, that the Attorney General would be crowing about 'now we can fully enforce this provision' that at least one court in the District of Columbia found was adopted to limit minority voter participation," Jose Garza, civil rights lawyer with MALC, said.

Update (11:22 a.m.): Texas Voter ID Law, Redistricting Maps to ‘Take Effect Immediately’

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says this morning’s decision means a Texas voter ID law "will take effect immediately." Here’s his statement in full:

“The U.S. Constitution establishes one United States — not a divided nation with different laws applying to different states. Laws that apply unequally to just some states have no place in our nation. Today’s ruling ensures that Texas is no longer one of just a few states that must seek approval from the federal government before its election laws can take effect.

“Today's ruling does not abolish the Voting Rights Act. All states, including Texas, continue to be subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution, which prohibit racial discrimination nationwide.

“With today’s decision, the State’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

Update (10:34 a.m.): What Decision Means for Voter ID in Texas

Today’s Supreme Court decision means Texas can implement a controversial voter ID program, according to the Texas Tribune:

Although the court did not issue an opinion on Section 5, the ruling makes that section null and void, said Michael Li, an attorney and editor of Texas Redistricting blog. … Li wrote in his analysis that Texas redistricting plans are likely headed for more controversy based on what state leaders are likely to do after today’s decision. “The Texas Legislature completed the process this weekend of adopting the 2012 interim maps as permanent maps (with just the most minor of changes to the state house map),” he wrote. “Those bills now are on Gov. Perry’s desk, awaiting signature. On the other hand, right now, there is no longer any preclearance bar, and the maps passed by the Texas Legislature back in 2011 are technically legally operative. Governor Perry now has to decide what to do next.”

You can read more at the Texas Tribune

Update (10:17 a.m.): Up Next – Congressional Action?

The Supreme Court didn’t strike down Section 5 of the VRA – the portion requiring certain states to “preclear” electoral changes with the Department of Justice. But it did strike down Section 4 – the portion identifying which areas would need to seek DOJ approval. NPR’s coverage cites legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin, who notes that “by striking Section 4, in practice, the other section of the law – Section 5 — is dormant."

That means if the Voting Rights Act is to have a future, new standards must be written for its implementation. And the job is up to Congress.

Chief Justice John Roberts writes in his opinion for the court:

“Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.  Such a formula is an initial prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions still exist justifying such an “extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government.” … Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

You can read the court opinion’s online.

Update (9:45 a.m.): What States Were Covered by ther VRA? 

The Associated Press has a list of states covered by the Voting Rights Act: 

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan.

I'm a freelance writer for the Austin American Statesman and others.
Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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