Federal judge takes up contentious Texas voter ID law

The legal challenge to Texas' voter ID law is a test of how the federal Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by the US Supreme Court, will now be applied.

Eric Gay/AP/File
An election official checks a voter's photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas, Feb. 26. A federal trial opened Tuesday, that will decide the fate of one of the nation’s most stringent voter ID laws.

A federal judge took up the Obama administration’s challenge to a stringent voter ID law in Texas Tuesday in the first test of the Voting Rights Act weakened by the US Supreme Court last year.

For two years, Texas voters have been required to show an approved form of identification before entering the ballot box. The Justice Department and civil rights lawyers charge that the measure disenfranchises black and Latino voters who are less likely to have appropriate ID.

Lawyers for the state argue that the requirement is no different from those already in place to cash a check, open a bank account, or board a plane. But a 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that immigrant and minority voters are significantly less likely to be able to provide the multiple forms of identification necessary to obtain an acceptable form of ID.

Acceptable forms of identification include a concealed handgun permit, a drivers license, or a state issued election certificate. College IDs are not considered valid.

As many as 780,000 registered Texas voters do not have appropriate forms of identification, the plaintiffs argue. What's more, they say minorities are reluctant to seek out election certificates because of rumors that they will have to first submit to background checks, Bloomberg reported.

“Whether or not that’s true, the perception is there to scare people away from exercising their constitutional rights,” Chad Dunn, attorney for Rep. Marc Veasey (D) of Texas, told the federal judge in Corpus Christi Tuesday.

Attorneys for the state argued that the voters who do not have proper ID can cast provisional ballots until they are able to obtain an acceptable ID, according to Bloomberg. 

Texas alleges that the Obama administration is specifically targeting “only Southern, Republican-led states” in a thinly veiled attack on the GOP, The New York Times reported. The fact that presiding US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is an Obama appointee has added fuel to those claims.

In recent years, 34 states have passed voter identification laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Judges have struck down ID requirements in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arkansas; appeals are still pending in the latter two states. Measures in Georgia and Indiana have survived challenges.

The Texas law first came under scrutiny shortly after Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed the measure in 2011. Under a special provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, any proposed change to election law in nine, mostly Southern, states with a history of discrimination in voting had to secure pre-approval from Washington before amending election laws.

The US Supreme Court struck down that provision in June 2013.

If Texas loses this court battle, the state could once again be required to seek federal approval before altering voting laws.

The trial is expected to last two weeks, but Judge Ramos will most likely not return a verdict until after the upcoming midterm election in November.

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