Texas election officials can go ahead and enforce a controversial voter identification law opposed by the Obama administration and civil rights groups, the U.S. Supreme Court said early Saturday.
The decision comes just two days before early voting begins in the state.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said it was “a major step backward to let stand a law…(that was) designed to discriminate.”
“It is true we are close to an election,” Holder said Saturday, “but the outcome here that would be least confusing to voters is the one that allowed the most people to vote lawfully.
A civil rights leader reacted harshly to the ruling, calling it an “affront to our democracy.”
“Today’s decision means hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in Texas will be unable to participate in November’s election because Texas has erected an obstacle course designed to discourage voting,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
A spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general’s office, however, lauded the decision.
“We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that Texas’ voter ID law should remain in effect for the upcoming election,” spokeswoman Lauren Bean said. “The state will continue to defend the voter ID law and remains confident that the district court’s misguided ruling will be overturned on the merits. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter ID laws are a legal and sensible way to protect the integrity of elections.”
While the court offered no reasoning for its decision, it backs up a federal appeals court ruling Tuesday saying that voting procedures shouldn’t be upended so close to the election.
That decision came in response to a federal judge’s ruling after a nine-day trial that a Texas law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls is unconstitutional.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed courts to consider the importance of preserving the status quo on the eve of an election,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said.
Proponents say the law will help prevent voter fraud. Critics say such practices make it harder for poor, minority and disabled people to vote.
Minority and civil rights groups who banded together to oppose the law said it was among the most restrictive in the nation.
Some 600,000 people in Texas lack state-issued IDs, according to the U.S. Justice Department — which rejected the law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Nationwide, the NAACP says 25% of African-Americans and 16% of Latinos of voting age lack a current government-issued photo ID.
Saturday’s decision doesn’t speak to the constitutionality of the law — only whether it can be enforced in this fall’s election. Continued legal challenges are a certainty, Ifill said.
While the court’s majority didn’t offer any explanation for the ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a nearly seven-page dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Ginsburg said the costs associated with the law — obtaining identity cards and the documents needed to get them — aren’t as insignificant as backers claim, and argued they harken back to the use of the poll tax in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a method of preventing blacks from voting.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
The first day of early voting in Texas is Monday. Voters will choose a new governor to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Perry, new lieutenant governor, and new attorney general, in addition to voting on one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and several House districts.