U.S. Sues Texas Over Voter-Identification Law

President Barack Obama’s administration sued Texas to block new voter-identification rules, escalating a confrontation with Republicans in a state where Democrats seek gains from a growing Hispanic population.

The Justice Department suit, filed today in federal court in Corpus Christi, Texas, is the second effort by the administration to upend the state’s voter-identification law and its first since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act earlier this year. The government also joined a suit on the state’s redistricting plan.

“The state knew or should have known that Hispanic and African-American Texans disproportionately lack the forms of photo ID required” by the new law, “as opposed to their Anglo counterparts,” the government said in the complaint.

The fight over Texas voting rules comes amid a surge in the state’s Hispanic population, which in the 2012 election voted 71 percent nationally for Obama, according to exit polls. Texas is the only one of the four majority-minority states that didn’t vote for Obama in 2012. Latinos make up about 38 percent of the population, yet cast only 22 percent of the votes, according to research by Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston.

Democratic Activists

Advocacy groups aligned with the Democratic Party are seeking to capitalize on the state’s shifting demographics.

Texas’s elected officials, led by Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, vowed to fight back against what they perceive as federal intervention in state sovereignty.

“The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama,” Perry said in an e-mailed statement.

The Justice Department today officially joined a separate lawsuit to force Texas to get federal approval before enacting new voter maps. That redistricting challenge by minority voting-rights advocates has been underway in U.S. court in San Antonio since the Republican-controlled state legislature created new election districts in 2011.

Holder moved to block the photo-ID law in 2012 under the Voting Rights Act, saying it would disenfranchise minority voters. Today’s suit draws on a different section of the act to ask a federal judge to require that Texas receive federal clearance before making any changes to its voting laws.

‘Open Season’

“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,” Holder said today in a statement. “The department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs.”

Texas’s photo-ID law requires voters to show one of six kinds of government-issued identification cards to vote in person at the polls. Voters lacking those cards must show identity documents to obtain election ID certificates at state drivers’ license offices, which aren’t open on evenings or weekends. Many counties lack drivers’ license offices, which means some voters have to travel as far as 200 miles roundtrip to be eligible to vote.

“Federal courts have ruled time and again that government officials in Texas are systematically making it harder for minorities to vote,” Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in Texas, said in an e-mailed statement. “Overwhelming evidence” of intentional discrimination to be shown in court will force state officials to remove barriers to voting, he said.

Political Effort

U.S. Senator John Cornyn, also a Texas Republican, said the federal suit represents a political effort by the Democratic administration to “turn our state blue.”

“We deserve the freedom to make our own laws and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points,” Cornyn said in a statement.

Lawyers for the state have defended Texas’s new election maps as legal gerrymanders intended to disadvantage the opposing political party rather than minorities.

The state claims the voter-ID measure will prevent non-citizens from casting fraudulent votes. The U.S. says in its complaint that proponents of the ID requirement “cited virtually no evidence during or after enactment” of the law that in-person voter fraud was a “serious problem” in Texas.

Congressional Seats

Texas gained four new congressional seats in 2010, based on the U.S. Census finding that the state added more than 4 million new residents in the previous decade. About 80 percent of the new Texans are minorities, according to the 2010 census.

The Supreme Court’s June ruling struck down a core provision related to the requirement that states with a history of voter discrimination obtain federal preclearance before enacting changes to voting laws. The decision invalidated the Justice Department’s decision to block the state’s voter-identification law in 2012, a step taken after the department determined the law “intentionally” disenfranchised Hispanic voters.

The suit asks the court to block enforcement of the voter-identification law -- something pursued under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act -- while also requesting that Texas be subjected to a new preclearance requirement.

The redistricting suit asks a three-judge panel in San Antonio to also require Texas to obtain preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, and to block implementation of new election maps state lawmakers adopted in June.

The case is U.S. v. Texas, 2:13-00263, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Corpus Christi). The redistricting case is Perez vs. Perry, 5:11-cv-00360, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio).

To contact the reporters on this story: Laurel Calkins in Houston at lcalkins@bloomberg.net; Phil Mattingly in Washington at pmattingly@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net; Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net

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