AUSTIN — Texas will immediately begin enforcing a voter identification law that a federal court found discriminates against minorities, the state attorney general said Tuesday after the U.S. Supreme Court suspended a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Attorney General Greg Abbott said the ruling also means Texas officials won’t have to seek federal approval before changing congressional and legislative boundaries to account for population shifts in the rapidly growing state.
Local jurisdictions such as Waco and McLennan County also won’t have to seek federal approval before changing polling locations, redistricting or changing their system of representation, such as abandoning single-member districts.
“The direct impact . . . is that it now means if the city of Waco or the county want to make a change that affects voting, it no longer has to be pre-cleared,” said Mike Morrison, a Baylor University law professor who consults on redistricting issues.
Under Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of the states, mostly in the South, that must have their voting law changes “pre-cleared” by the federal courts to make sure they don’t discriminate against minorities.
As recently as this year, the city of Waco had to get pre-clearance to create a new polling place at the Waco Convention Center.
Although Tuesday’s ruling doesn’t strike down the pre-clearance requirement, it finds the provision can’t be used until Congress comes up with a new formula to determine what jurisdictions should be subject to it.
The ruling figured to have a major effect on the fate of Texas’ congressional and legislative maps.
A federal court in Washington, D.C., struck down one set of maps approved by the Legislature last year, and lawmakers pushed through new ones during a special session that concluded Tuesday. Should Gov. Rick Perry sign them into law, the state might enact them without sending them back to the courts for approval first.
Abbott, one of several state attorneys general who sued to overturn the pre-approval aspect to the law, said a more immediate impact of the ruling would be enacting a state law requiring voters to show a state-issued voter ID.
Another panel of judges had struck down that law as discriminatory to minorities last year.
“The U.S. Constitution establishes one United States, not a divided nation with different laws applying to different states,” he said in a statement. “Today’s ruling ensures that Texas is no longer one of just a few states that must seek approval from the federal government before its election laws can take effect.”
The Supreme Court found Congress unjustly relied on 40-year-old data that do not reflect racial progress when determining which states should be subject to review. Until Congress comes up with a new formula, no state is subject to review.
Baylor law professor David Guinn, a partner with Morrison in their redistricting practice, said Congress already should have updated the criteria for selecting which states were bound by pre-clearance so the law wasn’t left vulnerable to challenge.
“Their failure to act leaves us today with Section 4 being ruled unconstitutional,” Guinn said.
Morrison said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“I think most lawyers have read the tea leaves from what the court has said and fully expected this,” he said.
Morrison said Congress could quickly salvage the pre-clearance requirements by adopting new criteria, but he doubts that will happen.
In the meantime, any new voting policy still is subject to legal challenge by citizens under the Voting Rights Act, and a federal judge could order a city or other governmental body to continue getting pre-clearance.
Texas minority lawmakers and civil rights groups deplored the decision and vowed to use earlier court rulings to block the laws in other courts on constitutional grounds and under another section of the Voting Rights Act not affected by Tuesday’s decision.
“Texas is the only state in the nation with back-to-back findings of discrimination in the country,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “When it comes to poster children for voting rights, Texas will be front and center.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston who is black, declared the ruling a strike against protections for minority voters across the country.
“I don’t know what America those five Supreme Court justices are living in to be able to pretend that deliberate and blatant attempts to disenfranchise people of color at the ballot box do not exist,” he said. “Congress must act now to protect the voting rights of millions of Americans.”
Tribune-Herald staff writer J.B. Smith contributed to this story.