Attorney General Jeff Sessions is wasting no time giving us the Department of Injustice. Last month, his office told a judge that the federal government will no longer assert that Texas acted with discriminatory intent in enacting a strict photo voter identification card law in 2011.
That decision comes amid the strongest evidence yet that voter ID is actually voter suppression.
The law, known as SB 14, is one of the nation’s toughest in a tsunami of voter restrictions fomented by Republicans as it dawned on them that the white share of the electorate was shrinking. Before 2006, no state required a photo ID to vote. Today, with Republicans in control of a solid majority of the nation’s governorships and state legislatures, 33 states now require some form of voter identification.
The Republicans fabricated the fervor for voter ID laws by making false claims of voter fraud by Democratic voters, who happen to be disproportionately African-American and Latino. Texas enacted its law even though Governor Greg Abbott , when he was state attorney general, could find fewer than 20 convictions or no-contest or guilty pleas for voter fraud over a decade.
The damage of Republican lying, long before President Trump’s false claims of millions of illegal voters the November election, is clear. In January, researchers from the University of California, San Diego; Michigan State University; and Bucknell University published a study in The Journal of Politics that found that strict voter ID in fact dampens turnout by people of color.
In a February guest op-ed column in The Washington Post, the study’s authors said that, compared with states that do not have strict voter ID laws, states that do have such laws nearly triple the turnout gap between Latino and whites voters in general elections and quadruple it in primaries. The African-American/white gap nearly doubled in the general election and increased nearly five times in primaries. The Asian/white gap doubled in the general and tripled in the primaries. “Our research shows that these laws lower minority turnout and benefit the Republican Party,” the authors wrote. “However we look at it, strict voter ID laws suppress minority votes.”
That was why the Obama Justice Department challenged SB 14. The law would require every form of acceptable ID to have a photo of the voter. Under prior law, voters could present a nonphoto voter certificate. The DOJ quickly sniffed out that, by the state’s own data, Latino voters could be twice as likely to lack photo IDs as non-Latinos. Securing proper ID would probably mean financial burdens on the poor, such as spending $22 on a copy of a voter’s birth certificate.
And the travel burdens were worse. About a third of the state’s 254 counties had no operational drivers license office. Latinos who live in counties without an office were about twice as likely to be without satisfactory ID than non-Latinos.
In 2012, a three-judge federal panel essentially agreed with the Justice Department. Noting that African-Americans and Latinos were three times and two times more likely to live in households without a vehicle, and with testimony that round trips to get a drivers license could be 200 to 250 miles, the panel wrote that “it is virtually certain that these burdens will disproportionately affect racial minorities. Simply put, many Hispanics and African-Americans who voted in the last election will . . . be unable to vote in the next election. This is retrogression.”
Texas continued to stand behind the law and got a fresh dressing down last year when a federal appeals court once again reaffirmed SB 14’s discriminatory effect. The court said that even though few politicians in the modern age publically state any intent to discriminate, “There remains evidence to support a finding that the cloak of ballot integrity could be hiding a more invidious purpose.”
But now, after five years of the DOJ trying to lift the cloak of voter suppression, Sessions, the former Alabama senator, is draping it back over Latinos and African-Americans. If Sessions gives a free pass to the worst of voter ID laws, then it will confirm that this is the Sessions who was refused a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of alleged past racist statements and jokes, and trying in vain to prosecute black voter fraud when he was a federal attorney in Alabama.
For all of his public motions of his recent meetings with civil rights leaders, Sessions has also announced he will “pull back” from aggressive monitoring of corrupt and brutal police departments, despite volumes of documented abuse compiled by the Obama DOJ. With a rollback of guidelines on transgender rights for schoolchildren and the imposition of travel restrictions on six predominately Muslim countries, the first month of Sessions as attorney general is playing out to the delight of white supremacists.
When Sessions was confirmed, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeted, “Thank God after 8 horrible years of black radical Marxists we finally have an AG who will defend decent American people.”
With Sessions rolling back democracy so rapidly (on top of lying to Congress about his contact with Russian officials during the Trump campaign), the next question is, who will the defender of decency itself? The Department of Justice is rapidly becoming anything but.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.