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A new ruling on voter ID laws could affect the 2016 presidential race

33 states have voter identification laws on their books. One of them was just struck down by the one of the most conservative federal appeals courts. Similar laws could be next.

by Brendan James
Jul 21 2016, 7:40pm

In a victory for proponents of expanded voting access, one of the country's most conservative federal courts on Wednesday found a Texas voter identification law to be unconstitutional because it disenfranchised minority voters.

The ruling by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals puts on notice a similar voter identification law in Mississippi, which, along with Louisiana, is in the circuit court's jurisdiction.

"We believe the ruling applies to Mississippi as well. It does by necessity," Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties' Voting Rights Project, said on Thursday. "This is hugely significant and we expect it to reverberate around the country."

The ruling comes after a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, in which the high court gutted a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law, section 4(b), was intended to protect against a return of Jim Crow-era voting requirements that were used to systematically keep African-Americans from voting in the American south.

The court ruled that Texas's state law, Senate Bill 14, which requires voters provide a state-issued identification, such as a driver's license, passport or military ID, was unconstitutional due to its "discriminatory effect" on the voting capabilities of black and Latino citizens.

A total of 33 states hold similar voter identification requirements at varying levels of intensity, according to watchlist Ballotpedia. Nineteen states, for example, demand registered voters produce a photo ID, while the rest accept other forms of identification.

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"We conclude that the district court did not clearly err in determining that SB 14 has a discriminatory effect on minorities' voting rights in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," the court majority wrote.

Despite the association of voting rights with the civil rights movement, the Fifth Circuit's judges are considered among the most conservative in the country. A glance at the judges on the bench reveals judges appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and is one of the largest remaining pools of active federal judges appointed by Republicans.

"If the Fifth Circuit will rule this way," Ho said, "others will likely take at least as strong a stance."

Ho was hesitant to speculate about any concrete electoral outcomes in November, but the numbers aren't paltry.

In Texas, about 600,000 registered voters lacked the identification required by the law, according to the ACLU. The court found that they were disproportionately black and Hispanic. Now, they'll be able to vote. Texas Democrat and State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, told the New York Times on Wednesday that the court "got it right, recognizing the stink of discrimination."

The decision comes after another ruling sympathetic to civil rights activists on Tuesday in Wisconsin, where a federal judge carved out an exception to that state's voter ID law. Now about 300,000 registered voters without a required photo ID will now be able to vote in November.

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It's important to note that the court did not completely axe the law in Texas, either, but merely required the state to resolve the affected voters' lack of access to the polls. (The solution reached in Wisconsin was to provide people without required ID with an affidavit that, if completed, would let them vote.)

The Fifth Circuit also sent back the case back to a lower court to determine whether the law was deliberately discriminatory.

Supporters of the types of voter ID laws the court struck down on Wednesday say they are guarding against the specter of voter fraud, though studies and investigations in Wisconsin and Iowa have challenged claims that such fraud is pervasive or poses a danger to the integrity of the voting process. Critics argue that the ID laws are designed to suppress minority votes and shift state rightward, rigging voting demographics for Republicans while politically kneecapping Democrats or progressives.

Follow Brendan James on Twitter: @deep_beige