WASHINGTON – The Obama administration escalated its fight with Texas Republicans on Thursday over voting rights for minorities, as it urged judges to block a strict new voter-identification law that administration lawyers argue is discriminatory.
The case is the second this summer in which the administration plans to challenge a Texas voting law as racially biased. Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said the department would go to court to challenge the state’s drawing of legislative and congressional district boundaries, saying the plan shortchanged the political power of the state’s growing Latino population.
Prior to June 25, the Voting Rights Act required Southern states, including Texas, as well as a few non-Southern jurisdictions, to persuade Washington that changes in its election laws would not harm blacks or Latinos before they could put those laws into effect.
But the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision struck down that part of the law as outdated and no longer justified.
Now, to block a voting law, the Justice Department must persuade judges that it would discriminate against minorities if put into effect. Holder said he is determined to do just that with Texas’ voter ID law.
“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,” he said. The department will take legal action “against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs,” he added.
The Texas law requiring a photo identification for voting ran into sharp criticism last year because of the state’s wide open spaces. Lawyers said that in some counties, registered voters who did not drive would have to go hundreds of miles round-trip to obtain an authorized photo from a motor vehicles office before they could vote.
The law also said a student’s official university photo did not count as acceptable identification, but a permit for a concealed handgun could be used.
Last year, a panel of three judges in Washington agreed that this requirement would disproportionately hurt voters who are old, poor and members of racial minorities.
Civil rights leaders praised Holder’s move. “Texas has a deeply disturbing history of brazenly suppressing the votes and voting strength of black and Latino voters,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“The voter ID law in Texas is a solution in search of a problem. A Texas voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than see someone attempt to vote fraudulently at the polls.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, slammed the Obama administration for practicing “the cynical politics of race.”
“Voter IDs have nothing to do with race, and they are free to anyone who needs one,” said Abbott, who is a leading candidate to succeed Texas Gov. Rick Perry.