Voting Rights and Democracy

Veasey v. Abbott

In Veasey v. Abbott, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered whether the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation, Texas’s SB 14, violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Case Summary

SB 14 required prospective voters to present either a state issued voter ID card or a photo ID from a limited list of acceptable IDs prior to voting. Originally enacted in 2011 – and initially blocked from going into effect by a three-judge court pursuant to Section 5 of the VRA – Texas’s SB 14 was implemented in 2013 shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder.

Following implementation, various groups and citizens challenged the legality of SB 14 under Section 2 of the VRA and the Constitution due to the law’s arbitrariness and its disproportionate effect on minority voters. Texas argued that if Section 2 of the VRA were interpreted to prohibit laws like SB 14, it would exceed the scope of Congress’s power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. The district court disagreed with Texas, holding that SB 14 violated Section 2 of the VRA, as did a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit on appeal. Texas then asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case, which on March 9, 2016, a majority of the court’s judges voted in favor of doing.

On May 16, 2016, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that SB 14 violated the basic rule of voter equality enshrined in the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, and that the Fifteenth Amendment grants Congress the power to prohibit laws that make it more difficult for racial minorities to vote. Enacted against the backdrop of explosive growth in Texas’s African-American and Latino populations, SB 14 imposed arbitrary and discriminatory burdens on minority voters, which impeded their ability to vote and therefore violated the strictures of the VRA. As we demonstrated, Texas’s argument that the VRA cannot constitutionally prohibit discriminatory laws like SB 14 could not be squared with the text and history of the Fifteenth Amendment, which give Congress broad powers to prevent racial discrimination in voting by the states, including by adopting prophylactic rules to protect the right to vote, such as the results test contained in Section 2 of the Act. While a state is entitled to protect the integrity and reliability of the electoral process, it may not do so by drawing arbitrary lines that result in racial discrimination.

On July 20, 2016, the full Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that SB 14 violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act through its discriminatory effects, and remanded the case to the district court to determine the appropriate remedy. As we urged in our brief, the Fifth Circuit also recognized that “[i]f the State had its way, the Fifteenth Amendment and Section 2 would only prohibit outright denial of the right to vote and overtly purposeful discrimination” even though “both the Fifteenth Amendment and Section 2 also explicitly prohibit abridgement of the right to vote.”

Case Timeline

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