Texas case puts voter ID laws to test
Voter ID laws face a high-profile test this week as the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC hears arguments about Texas’ controversial new regulations.
The case pits Texas against Attorney General Eric Holder, who has earned the ire of Republicans across the country for challenging new
voting restrictions. Republicans say the Justice Department should be more concerned about fraud; the DOJ counters that these laws suppress minority turnout.
Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed Texas’ voter ID law in May 2011. The state already required an ID to vote; the new law requires a photo ID. Those who don’t have a valid photo ID can apply for a new “election identification certificate.”
As a state with a history of voter discrimination, Texas must get preclearance from the Department of Justice for changes in election law. The DOJ blocked Texas’ law under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, declaring that it would disproportionately affect Hispanic voters.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued the DOJ in federal court. Given that the Supreme Court has deemed an Indiana photo ID law constitutional, Abbott argues that the Justice Department is misusing the Voting Rights Act to infringe on states’ rights.
“This is a case about Texas’ proposed implementation of one of the most popular voting reforms of the last 20 years, a common-sense requirement that when you show up to polls to vote, you prove you are who you say you are with a photo ID,” Texas attorney Adam Mortara told the court.
Keith Ingram, director of the elections division of the Texas secretary of state’s office, testified that there are potentially 50,000 deceased voters on the Texas voter rolls.
Attorneys for Texas also noted that Ingram and his wife were included on a Justice Department list of 1.9 million potential voters who lack ID, even though the couple have current driver’s licenses.
Critics, meanwhile, argue that it’s Texas that is bending the law.
“Politicians shouldn’t be allowed to manipulate our voting rights for their own benefit,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice.
An Associated Press analysis found that stringent new photo ID laws disenfranchise thousands of legal voters. In Pennsylvania, where a photo ID law takes effect this year, a Philadelphia Inquirer study found that 9.2 percent of the state’s registered voters do not have a photo ID card from the Transportation Department. In Texas, the state found that 605,000 voters lack the necessary ID. DOJ attorney Elizabeth Westfall said in her opening statement today that as many as 1.4 million voters could be affected. “We look forward to explaining the flaws in the state’s argument,” she said.
Seventeen states have passed laws requiring photo ID.
South Carolina also has been denied preclearance for its law and is also suing the Justice Department. Alabama, Mississippi and New Hampshire have not yet applied for preclearance; Wisconsin’s law has been ruled unconstitutional by a state judge.
A Georgia photo ID law received DOJ preclearance in 2005, something Texas cited in its suit. But that decision was controversial with career officials at the department’s Civil Rights Division, many of whom said that officials put political pressure on them in voting-rights cases.
A three-judge panel will hear the case. What they decide could have major ramifications not just for Texas but for the Voting Rights Act itself.
Annelise Russell of News21 contributed to this report.