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Texas Legislators Argue Over Voter ID Bill That Opponents Contend Discriminates Against Poor Black People

Texan Eric Kennie could not vote in November despite having same IDs he's had to vote in previous elections.

Texan Eric Kennie could not vote in November despite having same IDs he’s had to vote in previous elections.

At 45, Eric Kennie has never left the state of Texas. In fact, he said he’s never departed the city of Austin.

“Not one day,” he said to The Guardian.

Kennie voted for President Obama in 2008, in the midterm elections two years later and again for Obama in 2012. But because of a new Texas voting ID law, this man who was born, raised and never left Texas was not allowed to vote in last year’s midterms.

Kennie’s case crystallizes an important fight that is taking place in the state. An estimated 600,000 Texans, mostly Black, who are registered to vote cannot because of law SB14.

It has been deemed the strictest of its kind and forces registered voters who have a history of going to the polls for years to produce specific photographic proof. Then-Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican leaders in the state legislature justified the law, claiming it combats electoral fraud. Problem is, Texas is a state where in the past 10 years about 20 million votes have been cast, and yet only two cases of voter impersonation have been prosecuted to conviction. Two.

“This is the first time the courts have allowed a law that actually keeps people from voting to go into effect, even though a judge found it was passed for the purpose of making it harder for minorities to vote,” said Wendy Weiser, head of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Supporters and opponents of the law were questioned in a federal appeals court on Tuesday on whether the law was meant to discriminate against Blacks and Hispanics and what could be done to absolve the concerns.

The U.S. Justice Department and others oppose the law as an unconstitutional burden on minority voters and were glad it was repealed by a judge. The state of Texas is appealing that decision, saying the law was aimed at preventing fraud. Catharina Haynes, one of three judges hearing the Texas case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, suggested in questioning that the matter should perhaps be sent back to the district court for further consideration.

She noted that the Texas legislature currently has several bills that could broaden the number and types of ID voters could use to cast ballots, according to The Guardian. Haynes also noted that a statewide election took place in Texas last year under the requirements of the new law, which was being enforced while the appeal was pending. Kennie was not allowed to vote in that election.

Erin Flynn of the Justice Department said: “Turnout number doesn’t capture the deterrent and suppressive effect that a voter ID law has,” she said.

The law requires voters to provide one of seven kinds of photo identification to cast a ballot. Four are available from the state department of public safety–driver’s licenses, personal IDs, concealed-handgun permits, passport and election identification certificates. Federally issued passports, citizenship certificates and military IDs also are acceptable. But for those who are poor and Black, like Kennie, acquiring either of these IDs can be problematic, something the Republicans who voted for the law knew.

Opponents said the old law required an ID with or without a photo, such as a voter registration card, a utility bill, a bank statement or a paystub, that identified the voter and the voter’s address. They said fraud was rare and actual incidents of voters showing up at a poll pretending to be someone else were virtually nonexistent. They also complained about the exclusion of some photo IDs, including federal or state employee IDs and college student IDs.

Judge Haynes asked whether “a more nuanced” remedy than striking the whole law might be called for–for instance, allowing the use of a voter registration card, which does not contain a photo, but stopping short of going back to the old law’s allowing of utility bills or bank statements.

Both sides stuck to their arguments, with Scott Keller of the Texas solicitor general’s office arguing that the law does not discriminate. Lawyers for the Justice Department and other opponents of the law said the ruling to ban the law by U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos was sound.

But the bigger picture of the law that was discussed Tuesday was its intent. The law’s opponents, and Ramos’s opinion, noted Republican state representative Todd Smith’s statement during debate on the bill that it was “common sense” that those lacking the required IDs would most likely be Black or Hispanic voters. At the same time, he claimed the law was not discriminatory.

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