With the U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a 2011 Texas law requiring voter identification should immediately become effective, state officials said.
The law, which requires voters to present valid photo identification in order to cast a ballot, had been held up at the U.S. Department of Justice, subject to review under the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with an up-to-date formula for deciding which states and localities still need federal monitoring.
Texas had been subject to such monitoring since 1975.
The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965. But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek federal approval, in advance, for election changes.
The decision means many state and local laws that have not received Justice Department approval or have not yet been submitted will be able to take effect. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in states such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi.
The decision could affect the politics of election-related legislation in the future, since federal oversight has hung over election-related proposals for decades. At least until Congress acts, that deterrent now is gone. That prospect has concerned civil rights groups, which especially worry that changes on the local level might not get the same scrutiny as the actions of state legislatures.
The decision came in a challenge to the advance approval, or pre-clearance, requirement, which was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.
The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure’s strong medicine was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of the vote for black Americans.
But it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states’ rights to conduct elections. It was considered an emergency response when first enacted in 1965.
The county noted that the 25-year extension approved in 2006 would keep some places under federal oversight until 2031 and seemed not to account for changes that include the elimination of racial disparity in voter registration and turnout or the existence of allegations of race-based discrimination in voting in areas of the country that are not subject to the provision.
The Obama administration and civil rights groups said there is a continuing need for preclearance and pointed to the Justice Department’s efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas last year, as well as a Texas redistricting plan that a federal court found discriminated against the state’s large and growing Hispanic population.
The Texas Department of Public Safety issued a press release Tuesday announcing that it would make election identification certificates available beginning today.
Many Texans already have the photo ID necessary to vote, such as a driver’s or concealed handgun license, state or military identification card, U.S. passport or certificate of naturalization. But for those who need photo identification to vote, DPS will issue the photo certificates to Texas residents who are U.S. citizens and either present a valid voter registration card or submit a voter registration when applying for the certificate.
Certificates will be valid for six years. Certificates will not expire for Texas residents age 70 and older.
Denton County Elections Administrator Frank Phillips said that, since many voters already present a driver’s license in order to vote, he didn’t think the change would have much of an effect on poll workers.
“I think there will be a greater effect on voter education,” Phillips said, particularly since the requirement is expected to take effect immediately.
Elections officials will be taking additional steps to let people know they will need a photo ID for Election Day in November.
The decision also means Texas is free to adopt redistricting maps without being subject to preclearance. During the current special session, the Texas Legislature recently passed legislation adopting the maps used for the 2012 election, but Gov. Rick Perry has not yet signed the bill. The 2012 maps were drawn by federal judges who struck down the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting map.
Dianne Edmondson, head of the Denton County Republican Party, said it was a good day in Denton County.
“We’re very grateful the Supreme Court has finally realized there is no minority voter suppression in Texas and other states held hostage to that ruling passed decades ago,” she said.
She said the ruling means Texas voters can proceed with the laws it passed, and the redistricting lines cannot be challenged “as they have for decades by the Democrats and their racist policies.”
She said she looks forward to Texas holding its primary election as scheduled, referencing the 2012 primary that was delayed several months because of court challenges to redistricting.
Phyllis Wolper, head of the Denton County Democratic Party, said the U.S. Supreme Court decision essentially cuts the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, pretending that the actions of states to restrict voting and reduce minority representation at the polling place is a non-issue in this day and time.
“We well know that prejudice and racism is alive and well in Texas and many other states and was in practice as recently as the last national election, in spite of the re-election of President Obama,” she said.
It also saddles taxpayers with the huge cost of producing the identification cards, she said.
“The fate of the American voter is now left to be decided by some future legislation passed in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “If any issue should be nonpartisan, it is our precious, yet endangered, voting rights.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.