Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice on Jan. 23 to compel enforcement of the state’s new voter ID law approved by the Legislature last year, which requires voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting.
Because Texas is among the states with a history of voting discrimination, the Voting Rights Act requires “preclearance” for any law or electoral change that affects voters. Those states also may seek preclearance from the U.S. District Court in District Columbia, which was the purpose of the suit Abbott filed this week against Attorney General Eric Holder.
Under the Voting Rights Act, the DOJ must conclude the voter ID law does not unfairly disadvantage minority voter. In its review of the law over the past six months, the DOJ has twice asked state officials to supply additional information on the racial breakdown of Texas voters. The recent rejection of South Carolina’s similar voter ID law prompted Abbott to ask the federal court to intervene and approve the Texas law.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter identification laws are constitutional,” Abbott said. “Texas should be allowed the same authority other states have to protect the integrity of elections.
The DOJ rejected the South Carolina law because more minority voters lacked a government-issued ID than their white counterparts. But in a novel argument, Abbott contends that doesn’t matter.
“(The Voter ID laws) apply to all voters regardless of race, and they affect only those voters who choose not to obtain a photo identification (which the state offers free of charge) and present it either at the polls or to the voting registrar after casting a provisional ballot,” the lawsuit said.
Under the Texas law, voters without a valid ID would still be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would be accepted if they present proper identification to an election registrar within six days of the election. This presupposes those voters could within six days of voting remedy whatever difficulties that prevented them from obtaining one of the specific forms of photo ID required by the statute to ensure their ballots would be counted.
Critics have challenged those requirements, saying the forms of ID required show favoritism toward voters more inclined to vote Republican. For example, college student ID cards – even those issued by state universities – are not adequate forms of government ID under the law, while gun carry permits are allowed. Photo IDs issued to seniors by the Veterans Administration are also inadequate under the law.
The Voter ID law passed the Texas Legislature along party line votes carried by GOP majorities in the House and Senate after being declared an “emergency” item by Gov. Rick Perry at the beginning of the 2011 session.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, the leading House Democrat who led an unsuccessful attempt to block the passage of Voter ID, responded to Abbott’s lawsuit by noting, “Texas must prove to the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the law does not ‘result in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color. ...’ Simply put, whether the state intended to discriminate does not matter; all that matters is whether the law has the effect of discriminating.”
Farrar followed that assertion with a simple observation. “Of course, the state has failed to comply with DOJ’s request because voter discrimination laws are, by definition, discriminatory,” said the Houston Democrat.
As attorney general, Abbott sought to focus attention on allegations of voter fraud by bringing a series of prosecutions between 2006 and 2008 – with little success.A Dallas Morning News editorial published in May 2008 summarized his efforts, describing “26 cases – all against Democrats, and almost all involving blacks or Hispanics. ... In 18 of the 26 cases, the voters were eligible, votes were properly cast and no vote was changed – but the people who collected the ballots for mailing were prosecuted.”Lone Star Project director Matt Angle suggested the voter ID law was an attempt to cure a problem that didn’t exist to gain political advantage for the GOP.
“Voter suppression and intimidation are tools in the Republican political arsenal,” said Angle. “Greg Abbott used them enthusiastically in prosecuting these citizens. Citizens fought back. … Texans can now assist elderly or disabled neighbors participate in elections without fear of improper prosecution.”
Abbot’s lawsuit this week effectively placed the Texas voter ID law in front of a federal court in Washington, D.C. – the same city where the Voting Rights Act mandates it must past muster. How this impasse will impact the upcoming primary and general elections in Texas remains to be determined.
Also Read this weeks editorial on this story here.