By Jim Vertuno
AUSTIN, Texas — A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily reinstated Texas’ tough voter ID law, which the U.S. Justice Department had condemned as the state’s latest means of suppressing minority voter turnout.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals allows the law to be used in the November election, despite a lower judge’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional. The 5th Circuit did not rule on the law’s merits; instead, it determined it’s too late to change the rules for the election.
The judge said the Supreme Court has repeatedly told courts to be cautious about late-hour interruptions of elections. Early voting starts Oct. 20.
“It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the state to adequately train its 25,000 polling workers at 8,000 polling places” in time for the start of early voting, the appeals court wrote.
While some voters may be harmed, the greater harm would come in potentially disrupting an election statewide, the court said.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund promised a quick appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling represents a temporary but key victory for Republican-backed photo ID measures that have swept across the U.S. in recent years. Last week’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos — an appointee of President Barack Obama who likened the law to a poll tax designed to dissuade minorities from voting — remains under appeal.
The Texas law, considered the toughest of its kind in the nation, requires that an estimated 13.6 million registered voters show one of seven kinds of photo identification to cast a ballot. The Justice Department says more than 600,000 of those voters, mostly blacks and Hispanics, lack eligible ID.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who had sought an emergency ruling from the conservative-leaning appeals court, is on the ballot as the Republican nominee for governor.
Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean called Tuesday’s ruling “the right choice to avoid voter confusion.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the opinion and declined immediate comment.
Texas Democrats decried the ruling.
“An intentionally discriminatory law should not be allowed to remain in effect,” said Texas Democrat Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.
Nineteen states have laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls. Courts across the country have knocked down challenges, including at the Supreme Court.
But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder brought the weight of his office into Texas after the Supreme Court last year struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which had prevented the state from enacting its voter ID law.
The full Voting Rights Act had blocked Texas and eight other states with histories of discrimination from changing election laws without permission from the Justice Department or a federal court. Holder vowed to wring whatever protections he could from the weakened version, and made Texas a first target.
Abbott, who is favored to win the race against Democrat Wendy Davis to replace Rick Perry as governor, said the law has support from minorities and whites alike. His office also pointed to other states, such as Georgia and Indiana, where similar measures have been upheld.
But opponents slammed Texas’ law as far more discriminatory. College students IDs aren’t acceptable, but concealed handgun licenses are. Free IDs offered by the state require a birth certificate that costs as little as $3, but the Justice Department argued that traveling to get those documents imposes a burden on poor minorities.
Opponents say Texas has issued fewer than 300 free voter IDs since the law took effect, while Georgia has issued 2,200 under a program with more robust outreach.
Davis criticized Abbott for continuing to support a law that a judge ruled discriminatory.
“It’s nothing more than a ‘poll tax,’ which means democracy and all Texans lose,” Davis said.