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Sticking Texas-Sized Hurdles on the Path to Polls

Communities of color simply can’t afford to sit this election out.

Supporters of the right to vote just suffered a huge setback.

On October 9, voter ID laws that could have disenfranchised nearly a million voters in Wisconsin and Texas were ruled unconstitutional. The timing of these rulings — one by a Supreme Court majority and the other by Nelva Gonzales Ramos, a Corpus Christi-based federal judge — is critical. This year’s midterm elections are just around the corner.

A few days later, a federal appeals court blocked the lower court’s decision in Texas. That move struck a low blow to voting rights across the nation, and the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority then issued an order of its own allowing the ruling to stand for now.

Collectively, these judicial actions cleared the way for Texas to enforce its suppressive voter ID requirements this November.

Texas has required voters to present a photo ID for years. This most recent law dramatically narrowed the range of acceptable documentation, so only a small number of documents are now permissible at the polls. Gun permits, for example, are valid credentials for voters seeking to cast ballots — but not student IDs.

In striking down the law, U.S. District Judge Gonzales Ramos ruled that it would require over 600,000 Texans to undertake the difficult and expensive effort to obtain photo IDs to exercise their right to vote. Furthermore, she found that the measure amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax on a disproportionate number of poor and minority voters.

Ramos also debunked the Texas law’s bogus claim of preventing voter fraud by pointing out that over the decade prior to its passage, only two cases of voter impersonation fraud had led to convictions.

The latest Texas ruling couldn’t be more disheartening. The three-judge panel in the federal appeals court didn’t find the lower court’s ruling wrong or unlawful. Instead, they chose to delay consideration of whether the ruling should permanently stand, citing concerns about potential confusion from last-minute changes.

“We should be extremely reluctant to have an election take place under a law that a district court has found, and that our court may find, is discriminatory,” Judge Gregg Costa — who sided with the majority ruling to keep the restrictions for now — admitted in a concurring opinion.

I agree.

While the Supreme Court served up a setback in Texas, it at least did the right thing in Wisconsin, where — over the objections of conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas — it blocked implementation of a similar voter ID law.

Previously ruled unconstitutional because of its disproportionate impact on African American and Latino voters, the Wisconsin law could have disenfranchised up to 300,000 people.

Voter participation typically slips in years without a presidential election. The non-partisan Voter Participation Center forecasts an even steeper decline this year among what it has termed the “Rising American Electorate” — namely, people of color, unmarried women, and youth. More than a third of the members of this group who voted in 2012 won’t show up at the polls in November, the center predicts.

With so much at stake — from police shootings of unarmed black men to rising income inequality and the equitable implementation of the Common Core standards in schools — communities of color simply can’t afford to sit this election out.

“No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live,” Supreme Court Hugo Black wrote for the majority in a 1964 ruling. “Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”

That basic principle stands today. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement far outweigh any trumped up and spurious claims of Election Day confusion. The first step in ensuring our voices are heard is to clear a path for all voters. Don’t let anything keep you from the polls on November — even if you’re a Texas voter.

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