Texas follows South Carolina as the second state in recent months to become embroiled in a court battle with the Justice Department over new photo ID requirements for voters.
Photo ID laws have become a point of contention in the 2012 elections. Liberal groups have said the requirements are the product of Republican-controlled state governments and are aimed at disenfranchising people who tend to vote Democratic — African-Americans, Hispanics, people of low-income and college students.
Proponents of such legislation say the measures are aimed at combating voter fraud. But advocacy groups for minorities and the poor dispute that and argue there is no evidence of significant voter fraud.
In regard to Texas, “I cannot conclude that the state has sustained its burden” of showing that the newly enacted law has neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect, Thomas E. Perez, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a letter to the Texas secretary of state.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot has said the Obama administration is hostile to laws like the one passed last year in Texas.
The National Conference of State Legislatures called the voter ID issue “the hottest topic of legislation in the field of elections in 2011,” with legislation introduced in 34 states.
The department had been reviewing the Texas law since last year and discussing the matter with state officials. In January, Texas officials sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, seeking a court judgment that the state’s recently enacted voter ID law was not discriminatory in purpose or effect.
As a state with a history of voter discrimination, Texas is required under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to get advance approval of voting changes from either the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
In a letter to Texas officials that was also filed in the court case in Washington, the Justice Department said Hispanic voters in Texas are more than twice as likely than non-Hispanic voters to lack a driver’s license or personal state-issued photo ID. The department said that even the lowest estimates showed about half of Hispanic registered voters lack such identification.
The range was so broad because the state provided two sets of registered voter data.
In December, the Justice Department rejected South Carolina’s voter ID law on grounds it makes it harder for minorities to cast ballots. It was the first voter ID law to be rejected by the department in nearly 20 years.
In response, South Carolina sued Holder; the state argued that enforcement of its new law will not disenfranchise any voters. Other states have moved toward photo ID requirements in the past year.
Alabama has a photo ID law, but it does not go in effect until 2014. Mississippi voters approved a photo ID law, but the state legislature has not yet adopted enabling legislation. The Justice Department has not yet reviewed the initiatives in either state.
The Justice Department has said it is reviewing voter ID laws in other states, but has not identified which ones.