Voting Rights Act decision threatens voter participation

Ketan Kapasi

When the Supreme Court decided two weeks ago to invalidate the heart of the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) of 1965, the decision sent shockwaves throughout the state, where the court’s decision prompted Attorney General Greg Abbott to announce just hours after the ruling that Texas’ voter ID law, which had been rejected by a federal panel as “retrogressive,” would be reinstated. The court’s decision and Abbott’s subsequent actions are bad for Texans and bad for UT students.

Prior to the court’s ruling, several states with a history of racial discrimination at the ballot box, including Texas, were required to report changes to their election law to the federal government for approval. (The preclearance requirements in Section 5 of the VRA were not thrown out, only the coverage definitions in Section 4, without which Section 5 can’t be enforced barring congressional intervention.) It was during this approval process that the Texas voter ID law, which puts in place stricter identification requirements for voters at the ballot box, was struck down by the federal court.

According to law professor Joseph Fishkin, the court’s majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, implies that discrimination and disenfranchisement in the United States are not what they once were. Roberts was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito in the 5-4 ruling.

The court’s decision to imply that racism is no longer present at the polls is surprising: If this were true, why did Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately reinstate Texas’ disenfranchising Voter ID law after learning of the ruling?

At first glance, Texas’ voter ID law seems like common sense; the attorney general has stated that the state simply wants to ensure that voters are U.S. citizens before they cast their ballot. But the San Antonio Express-News reported last year that fewer than five complaints of voter fraud were filed with Abbott’s office between 2008 and 2010. According to law professor Sanford Levinson, there is a widespread lack of evidence of voter fraud, which forces the question: Did the lawmakers who put in place voter ID do so to protect against voter fraud or to disenfranchise voting blocs?

Under the law, a driver’s license, military ID, passport, state personal ID card, citizenship certificate, passport, concealed handgun license or a special "election identification certificate" (which would be provided by the DPS free of cost) would suffice. But a student ID? No such luck. Consequently, this law would handicap the ability of UT students, who often visit the ballot box on campus in between classes, to vote. Traditionally, students have been able to vote on campus by showing a picture ID, including a UT ID card. But under the voter ID law, students with only a student ID would be unable to vote, leaving students without driver’s licenses out in the cold.

Requiring students to show this kind of proof in order to exercise their most basic right as Americans is not only shameful, but far-reaching—many students will simply forgo the entire process.

Students, of course, are not the only group who would be affected. Fishkin notes that a number of other groups would be disenfranchised. Elderly voters, minority voters and, generally speaking, people who lack the means to obtain the type of identification required by the new law would be obstructed from voting.

Despite the court’s decision, the battle is far from over. Law professor Stefanie Lindquist keenly notes that Section 2 of the VRA, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment remain as legal bulwarks against discrimination, as they allow for individuals to sue over discriminatory voting laws.

But this opportunity for potentially changing the law yet again in the future is a consolation prize at best. In the meantime, the court’s decision has put the participation of voters across the state at risk.

Kapasi is a finance junior from Sugarland.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column did not state that an election identification certificate, personal ID card, citizenship certificate or passport could also be used as identification at the polls under the Voter ID law. This information has been added for clarification.