Justice Dept. Blocks Texas Photo ID Voting Law

March 12, 2012

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's civil rights division on Monday blocked Texas from enforcing a new law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls, contending that the law would disproportionately suppress turnout among eligible Hispanic voters.

The decision, which follows a similar move in December blocking a law in South Carolina, brought the Obama administration deeper into the politically and racially charged fight over a wave of new voting restrictions, enacted largely by Republicans in the name of combating voter fraud.

In a letter to the Texas state government, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the state had failed to meet its requirement, under the Voting Rights Act, to show that the measure would not disproportionately disenfranchise registered minority voters.

"Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver's license or a personal identification card," Mr. Perez wrote, "and that disparity is statistically significant."
Texas has roughly 12.8 million registered voters, of whom about 2.8 million are Hispanic. The state had supplied two sets of data comparing its voter rolls with a list of people who had valid state-issued photo identification cards -- one from September and the other from January -- showing that Hispanic voters were 46.5 percent to 120 percent more likely to lack such identification than were non-Hispanics.

Under the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions that have a history of suppressing minority voting -- like Texas -- must show that any proposed change to voting rules would not have a disproportionate effect on minority voters, even if there is no evidence of discriminatory intent.

Such "pre-clearance" can be granted either by the Justice Department or by a panel of federal judges.
Texas officials had argued that they would take sufficient steps to mitigate any impact of the law, including giving free identification cards to voters who lacked them. But the department said the proposed efforts were not enough, citing the bureaucratic difficulties and cost of obtaining birth certificates or other documents necessary to get the cards.

In anticipation that the administration might not clear the law, Texas officials had already asked a panel of judges to allow them to enforce the law. A hearing in that case is scheduled for this week.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, praised the decision, saying the state law "would have blocked hundreds of thousands of Hispanic voters from the polls just because they lack a state-issued photo ID."

But Gov. Rick Perry called the decision "yet another example of the Obama administration's continuing and pervasive federal overreach." He argued that there was "no valid reason" for rejecting the law since it required "nothing more extensive than the type of photo identification necessary to receive a library card or board an airplane."

Under the state's existing system, voters are issued certificates when they register that enable them to vote. But last year, Mr. Perry signed a law that would replace that system with one requiring voters to present one of several photographic cards at their polling station.

The approved documents include a state-issued driver's license or identification, a license to carry a concealed gun, or several forms of federal identification. Student identification cards would not count.

The measure was part of a wave of new voting restrictions passed around the country, mostly by Republicans, after their sweeping victories in the 2010 elections. More than a dozen states tightened election rules, including eight that passed variations of a photo identification rule.

Supporters argue that such restrictions are necessary to prevent fraud. In a statement, Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, said state prosecutors had won about 50 convictions related to various kinds of election fraud over the past decade, and he listed several that appeared to involve in-person voter impersonation -- the kind addressed by photo ID requirements.

Critics say there is no evidence of significant amounts of in-person voter impersonation fraud and contend the restrictions are a veiled effort to suppress turnout by legitimate voters who tend to vote for Democrats, including students, the indigent and minorities.
"We note that the state's submission did not include evidence of significant in-person voter impersonation not already addressed by the state's existing laws," Mr. Perez wrote.
The analysis of the Texas law was complicated because the state submitted two sets of data that had conflicting numbers, showing that either 603,892 or 795,955 registered voters lacked a driver's license or state-issued identification card.

But the Justice Department concluded that there was a statistically significant disparity either way: in the first data set, 4.3 percent of non-Hispanic voters lacked the required identification, versus 6.3 of Hispanic voters.

In the second set, 4.9 percent of non-Hispanic voters lacked it, as compared with 10.8 percent of Hispanic voters.

The section of the Voting Rights Act at issue does not apply to jurisdictions that do not have a discriminatory past, giving the Justice Department less power to intervene in some states that have enacted such laws.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that a similar Indiana law did not violate the United States Constitution, but that case did not involve the higher standards of the Voting Rights Act or presentation of statistical evidence about any disparate impact.

Still, on Monday, a judge in Dane County, Wis., blocked that state's new photo identification voting law, ruling that it was unconstitutional under Wisconsin's charter.

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