A law professor called out Texas’ voter identification law for being racist during her Senate Judiciary Committee testimony with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Capitol Hill last week.
Franita Tolson, vice dean for faculty and academic affairs and professor of law at University of Southern California, did not hold back during the Sept. 22 Restoring the Voting Rights Act: Combating Discriminatory Abuses hearing when she was grilled by Cruz about the racist intent of the laws that require people to show identification to vote.
When Cruz asked Tolson if she thought voter ID laws were racist, Tolson said, “It depends.” Cruz went further and asked Tolson “what voter ID laws were racist.”
Tolson responded, “Apologies, Mr. Cruz, your state of Texas, perhaps?”
Texas passed a stricter voter ID requirement in 2011. The law required voters to show one out of seven forms of personal photo identification at the polls. It faced an immediate delay in taking effect because at that time Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required certain states with a history of racial voter disenfranchisement to prove that any new voting laws were not discriminatory.
This preclearance requirement ensured that the new Texas law had to survive either review by the Department of Justice or a court challenge in front of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. A 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County versus Holder, struck down preclearance as unconstitutional, and since that ruling many states once covered by Section 5 have begun enacting election laws that voting rights advocates and scholars like Tolson say were intended to and do discriminate.
A federal judge ultimately ruled that the 2011 Texas law was unconstitutional in 2014 because it “has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans,” and was imposed with a “discriminatory purpose.”
The state revised the law, and an appeals court upheld it. The amended law allows voters to present alternate forms of identification such as utility bills and signed affidavits, excusing them from showing the required identification.
When Cruz pressed Tolson on what were her grounds for calling the Texas voter ID Initiatives racist, she was prepared with an answer:
“You just said my state of Texas,” Cruz said. “So you tell me what about the Texas voter ID laws is racist.”
“Absolutely. So the fact that the voter ID law was put into place to diminish the political power of Latinos, with racist intent, and has been found to have racist intent,” Tolson responded.
“You’re asserting that. What’s your evidence for that?” Cruz continued.
The USC professor answered by pointing to the legal record: “The federal district court that first resolved the constitutionality of Texas’ voter ID law.”
Cruz asked five witnesses to say whether they believed voter ID laws were racist during the hearing on Wednesday.
Tolson was backed up by Democrat witnesses Asian Americans Advancing Justice President John Yang and Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. They both agreed that some voter ID laws are racially discriminatory.
Cruz concluded after the debate that three Democratic witnesses were confused about the law’s intent. At one point, he asked Tolson if she thought the entire state of Texas was racist because of her statement.
“The record should reflect all three of the Democratic witnesses invited by the chairman maintained to this committee that voter ID laws can be, in many instances, in most instances — I think are the various ways they formulate it — are racist,” Cruz said.
But analysts like Aaron Blake of the Washington Post pointed out that Cruz’s characterization of the Democratic witnesses’ statements was disingenuous.
“But none of them said ‘in most instances’ or anything like it,” Blake wrote Thursday. “They said ‘can be.’ They said ‘some.’ They said ‘it depends.’ They never quantified it.'”
Conservative witnesses who testified before the Senate panel Wednesday said they did not find voter ID laws racist. Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative and senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, argued that states that have passed voter ID laws offer free ID cards to everyone.