The Department of Justice abandoned a key objection to Texas’ strict voter ID law Monday, Feb. 27, foreshadowing how President Donald Trump’s administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions might handle the pressing issue of voting rights in the coming years.
The agency has since taken a new position on the issue, completely abandoning its complaint that the Lone Star State’s stringent voter ID law is intentionally racist. The department filed a motion to dismiss its “discriminatory purpose claim” on Monday ahead of a court hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 28, in Corpus Cristi, Texas, The Washington Post reported.
The move is a complete about-face from the DOJ’s initial stance on Texas’ restrictive voting law, as the government agency previously challenged the state’s ID requirement while under the Obama administration. Advocates for the law argued that such statutes were needed to snuff out voter fraud, but in July 2016, a federal court ruled that the law violated the Voting Rights Act and discriminated against Black and Latino residents.
The Republican-led Texas legislature passed one of the nation’s strictest voting laws in 2011, requiring that voters show a valid driver’s license, passport, concealed-handgun license or military ID card in order to cast their ballots. A federal appeals court argued that the law was discriminatory in nature, as more than 600,000 Texans, many of whom are racial minorities, did not have the proper IDs to vote.
“This is a complete 180-degree turn,” Danielle Lang, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, told The New York Times, adding that the DOJ was “fully committed to the case” under the Obama administration.
“They were full partners,” Lang continued. “This was their case as much as ours.”
While the Department of Justice is still a party in the case challenging Texas’ voter ID law, it retracted a crucial part of the complaint. Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program, which worked alongside the Obama DOJ to challenge the legality of Texas’ ID requirement, explained that there were essentially two parts to their case. The first part argued that Texas voter ID law was discriminatory against nonwhites, while the second part contended that it was the law’s intention to discriminate against nonwhites. The DOJ withdrew from the latter.
“The more vigorously the Department of Justice pursues illegal discrimination when it happens, the more deterrent an effect it has,” Weiser told the Associated Press. “When they pull back from vigorous enforcement, it may have an unfortunate and pernicious effect of sending a green light to states that there’s going to be less policing [of discriminatory laws].”
Last year, a federal appeals court agreed that the photo ID law had a discriminatory impact but asked a lower court to reconsider its findings that the law had discriminatory intent, according to NPR. That part of the case is expected to weighed in a federal court on Tuesday.
The New York Times reported that if a federal judge finds that the state acted with racially discriminatory intent like plaintiffs, including the DOJ, alleged, Texas would be required to seek federal approval before making any changes to its voting laws or procedures.
In its filing Monday, the Justice Department said it was choosing to give state lawmakers the chance to amend the problematic law rather than continue litigating the Texas legislature’s intent for approving the law. The state is currently weighing a new voter ID bill that would let people who have trouble obtaining an appropriate ID vote, so long as they sign an affidavit and can show other forms of ID, like a utility bill, according to the publication.
Though the DOJ’s change in position on the Texas voter ID law was somewhat expected after the election of President Trump and appointment of Sessionsl, voting rights advocates fear that such a sharp shift in position might have a negative impact on future voting rights issues.
“I have no reason to believe that this will affect the outcome of this case, but it is a disturbing signal from the Department of Justice,” Weiser said.