The Justice Department on Thursday redoubled its efforts to challenge state voting laws, suing Texas over its new voter ID measure as part of a growing political showdown over electoral rights.
The move marked the latest bid by the Obama administration to counter a Supreme Court ruling that officials have said threatens the voting rights of minorities. It also signaled that the administration will probably take legal action in voting rights cases in other states, including North Carolina, where the governor signed a voter ID law this month.
The Supreme Court in June invalidated a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had forced certain jurisdictions to receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing their voting laws. The ruling, however, did not preclude the Obama administration from using other sections of the law.
On Thursday, the Justice Department said it will rely on another section of the act to contend that the Texas voter ID measure was “adopted with the purpose, and will have the result, of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”
The Texas law sets strict requirements for the types of government-issued photo ID that must be presented at polling places. Texas argues that the requirements are intended to curb voter fraud. The suit filed by Justice says the state “knew or should have known that Hispanic and African-American Texans disproportionately lack the forms of photo ID required” by the law.
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“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. . . . This represents the department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”
Texas Republicans said the move smacked of federal interference and vowed to fight it. The lawsuit drew a particularly sharp response from Gov. Rick Perry, who accused Holder and President Obama of filing “endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas.”
“We will continue to defend the integrity of our elections against this administration’s blatant disregard for the 10th Amendment,” Perry said. The amendment sets limits on federal powers.
Sen. John Cornyn (R), a member of the Judiciary Committee and a former Texas attorney general, struck a similar note of outrage. “Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas and a lame-duck Administration trying to turn our state blue,” Cornyn said in a statement. “As Texans we reject the notion that the federal government knows what’s best for us.”
Holder announced last month that the department will support a separate lawsuit in Texas brought by a coalition of Democratic legislators and civil rights groups against a Republican-drawn redistricting plan. It submitted a “statement of interest” to the court and asked it to require Texas to submit all voting law changes for approval.
On Thursday, the department took a further step in that case, asking the federal court in Texas to formally allow it to become a party to the suit.
In both the voter ID and the redistricting case, the department asked that Texas again be required to submit to pre-clearance of any changes to its voting laws.
The Voting Rights Act required states with a history of discrimination to be granted approval by the Justice Department or courts before they could change their voting laws. In its June ruling in Shelby County v. Holder , the Supreme Court did not strike down the law but said Congress must come up with a new formula to determine which states should be subject to special scrutiny.
Legal experts said the Justice Department has various legal tools to counter the Supreme Court ruling. “They are trying a bunch of things,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine.
Experts noted that some of those approaches might not be effective. The provision the Justice Department is using to challenge the Texas voter ID law, for example, has traditionally been used for redistricting cases, according to Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University.
“Congress needs to act to update the Voting Rights Act” because existing legal tools are inadequate for these kinds of cases, said Overton, who served as principal deputy for legal policy in the Justice Department during Obama’s first term.
Hasen said the Justice Department’s recent actions signaled an admission that Congress may be unwilling to act. As a result, the administration will be forced to challenge electoral laws on a case-by-case basis.
The next state to be challenged, experts say, could be North Carolina. The new voter ID law there includes requirements that critics say will make voting harder, especially for racial minorities. Last week, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging it.
Aaron Blake contributed to this report.