Texas officials hoped to persuade federal appeals judges in New Orleans on Tuesday that the state's latest voter ID law should be allowed to take effect.
A hearing at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals centers on a law re-worked in May by the Texas Legislature after years of court battles. The new version allows those without an acceptable photo ID to vote by signing an affidavit stating they cannot reasonably obtain one.
The same federal judge who blocked the tougher 2011 version of the law blocked the re-worked version in August.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said the law still requires IDs more likely to be possessed by white voters than Latinos or African-Americans. The new law clarified that both U.S. passport books and cards would be accepted. But it didn't expand the list of acceptable IDs beyond those in the 2011 version of a law that critics said was the strictest voter ID law in the country.
Gonzales Ramos, who had likened the 2011 law to a "poll tax" on minority voters, said criminal penalties for lying on the affidavit required by the new law could scare away voters fearful of making an innocent mistake on the form.
Gonzales Ramos issued a permanent injunction against the new law. Texas persuaded a three-judge 5th Circuit panel to halt her order in September. That panel voted 2-1 for the stay, with judge James Graves dissenting.
A new panel was seated for Tuesday's hearing: Judges Patrick Higginbotham and Edith Jones, both nominees of President Ronald Reagan; and Graves, nominated by President Barack Obama.
Texas argues that the affidavit allowing those without IDs to have the opportunity to vote renders challenges moot. "The Texas Legislature has substantially amended Texas election law to provide a safeguard for voters who do not have and cannot reasonably obtain a qualifying photo ID," a brief for the state says. "That substantial amendment alone moots the pending constitutional challenge."
Critics say changes to the law failed to remedy what they say is its discriminatory intent, including its "discriminatory picking and choosing of acceptable IDs." Texas' law requires residents to show one of seven forms of approved identification, including concealed handgun licenses. But, unlike such laws passed in other states with conservative legislatures, Texas' rules don't recognize items such as university IDs from college students.
Amid the numerous legal challenges since the 2011 law was passed, Texas held elections featuring court-ordered workarounds that temporarily allowed anyone without an accepted form of picture ID to vote by signing an affidavit stating why they faced a reasonable impediment to obtaining one. That work-around was incorporated into this year's law -- with the stiff penalties that Gonzales Ramos found unacceptable.