The Obama administration blocked Texas’s new law requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls, escalating a partisan dispute over voting restrictions.
The U.S. Justice Department is using its power under the Voting Rights Act to halt the Texas law, saying in a letter to the state today that the measure may disproportionately harm Hispanics. The department in December blocked a similar law in South Carolina.
Voter identification laws were passed last year in eight states. Whether the requirements are inconveniences or barriers to voting is at the core of a debate between Republican supporters who say the laws will protect election integrity, and Democrats who oppose the statutes as attempts to disenfranchise minorities and the poor.
“Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card,” Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote in the letter to Keith Ingram, the director of elections for the Texas Secretary of State.
The Justice Department’s decision isn’t final. Texas and South Carolina have filed suit in federal court in Washington seeking permission to enforce their photo ID requirements.
The law’s requirements “entail minor inconveniences on exercising the right to vote,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in his court filing on Jan. 24.
Texas and South Carolina are among 16 states or portions of states that must obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before redrawing their district lines or changing election procedures because of a history of voting rights violations.
“It’s a good sign that the Department of Justice is stepping into the jurisdictions where it can to stop these laws in their tracks,” said Nancy Abudu, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project in Atlanta.
Under the Texas law signed last year by Governor Rick Perry, voters who arrive at the polls without one of seven acceptable forms of photo IDs issued by the state or federal government, including concealed carry handgun permits, would be given a provisional ballot, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website.
Those ballots would count only if voters bring an approved ID to the registrar’s office within six days of the election.
The law exempts mail-in ballots and voters with significant disabilities or religious objections to being photographed.
The photo ID law would disproportionately affect poor and minority voters, who are least likely to have any of the required forms of identification or the documentation needed to obtain one, said Luis Figueroa, a San Antonio, Texas-based legislative staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It also would hurt students because college or university IDs would not be accepted, Figueroa said.
The photo ID requirement could suppress minority turnout by three percent to five percent in Harris County, where Houston is located, and give Republicans an edge in local elections, said Carroll Robinson, a professor at Texas Southern University in Houston and a former city council member.
“We’re going to disenfranchise significant numbers of minority voters as they become more and more the majority in Texas,” Robinson said.
Patricia Harless, a Republican state representative, said concerns among constituents about “the integrity of elections” rather than possible partisan advantage explains why she sponsored the voter ID measure last year. The law reduces the possibility of fraud, she said.
Lawmakers excluded student IDs because “we wanted a form of identification that was easily recognized by the poll workers at the election site,” Harless said.
Voters 65 and older automatically qualify to cast ballots by mail, which requires no ID, and the state will provide free voter identification cards.
“We worked really hard to make sure we met the constitutional requirements,” Harless said.
The Voting Rights Act puts the burden on Texas to prove its law wouldn’t interfere with minorities’ ability to vote.
The Obama administration blocked South Carolina’s law in December after concluding minorities in the state are almost 20 percent more likely to lack state-issued identification than white registered voters.
Driver’s License Data
The Justice Department asked for similar statistics from Texas, which said it doesn’t collect the kind of racial data needed to accurately determine how many of the state’s registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or state ID card are black or Hispanic. Texas provided data based on Hispanic surnames and no data on the impact on black voters, according to the Justice Department.
Hispanic registered voters in Texas are 47 percent to 120 percent more likely to lack the required identification than non-Hispanic voters, the Justice Department said in its letter.
Jasmine Price, a sophomore at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college 30 miles from Houston, said the law would make it harder for her to vote in person in Texas, as she’d prefer, rather than by absentee ballot in her home state, Arkansas.
Price, 19, said if the law takes effect, she’ll try to find the time in between a full course load and three shifts a week as a manager at a Houston sporting goods store to drive seven miles from campus to the nearest state Department of Public Safety office that issues IDs.
“My forefathers had it even harder to vote -- they had to pass literacy tests -- but they made sure they did what they had to do so that their vote could count,” said Price, who is black. “So if they say I have to go to the DPS office, as much as an inconvenience as it is to go there, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Alabama, where the voter ID law is not scheduled to go into effect until 2014, and Mississippi, where lawmakers haven’t adopted legislation to implement a citizen initiative approving a similar requirement, would also have to obtain Justice Department or federal court approval.
In Wisconsin, which doesn’t need to obtain the same kind of advance approval under federal law as Texas does, a state judge temporarily blocked a voter ID requirement on March 6. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had sued Governor Scott Walker over the measure.
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