A federal appeals court last week released an important ruling that will determine the conditions under which many Americans go to the polls in November — or, really, whether they will be able to vote at all. The judges repudiated a strict Texas voter-identification law that, they found, places “excessive burdens” on people attempting to cast a ballot.

The court upheld a federal district judge’s ruling that the Texas law violates the Voting Rights Act, accepting findings that “a stark, racial disparity” exists between those who have or can get the required forms of voter ID and those who do not or cannot. In fact, the court found, “the legislature knew that minorities would be most affected by the voter ID law.”

The disparity results from the fact that minority voters tend to be poorer, are less likely to be able to make trips to obtain necessary documents, are often less capable of paying for official materials, and so forth. Some of the law’s challengers, for example, were born out of state, which made obtaining copies of their birth certificates excessively time-consuming and expensive. With the law in place, these people were turned away from the ballot box.

The court raised a crucial point that discredits those who defend the wave of voter-ID restrictions Republican lawmakers have imposed across the country in recent years: These laws are a solution in search of a problem. Studies have shown virtually no incidence of voter impersonation, the sort of crime that ID laws are supposed to combat. Texas is no exception. The court found that the Texas legislature knew “that in-person voting, the only concern addressed by SB 14, yielded only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade leading up to SB 14’s passage.” Absentee voting is much more prone to fraud, yet mail-in balloting was an alternative the state suggested for some of those who, because of state policy, found it hard to vote in person in Texas.

Such facts reveal Republican lawmakers’ true motivation in subjecting would-be voters to, as the court put it, “an almost impossible bureaucratic morass.” The noxious and anti-democratic goal is to diminish poor, minority and, therefore, likely Democratic turnout.

The court did not totally quash the law. A lower-court judge now must determine how to ameliorate its discriminatory effects, perhaps by expanding the forms of ID that would be acceptable or by creating an indigency exception to the rules. The lower court must also determine whether Texas lawmakers intended to discriminate — and there is a very strong case that they did — which could trigger ongoing federal review of changes state officials try to make to Texas voting law. The lower court should take a strong stand for voter access, as should the other courts considering voter-ID cases this election year.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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