By Justin Sink - 03/12/12 11:59 PM EDT
The Justice Department on Monday blocked a new Texas law that requires government-issued photo identification at the polls, further inflaming an intense and racially charged election-year debate over voting requirements.
Republicans blasted the Obama administration’s move as purely political and said the ID requirement is necessary to prevent fraud and election tampering.
The move by the Justice Department comes at the beginning of what is sure to be a fierce battle over voter laws. Attorney General Eric Holder has also challenged a voter ID law in South Carolina, and six other states have passed an ID requirement in the past year.
The Voting Rights Act empowers the Justice Department to halt voting laws or redistricting actions in 16 states — including Texas and South Carolina — if the changes would have a discriminatory effect.
The Supreme Court last year upheld an Indiana ID law that closely mirrors the Texas statute. Indiana is not one of the states covered by the Voting Rights Act.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) accused President Obama of wielding the Justice Department’s powers to help him win a second term.
“Voter identification laws are constitutional and vital to protecting the integrity of the democratic process,” Cornyn said in a statement. “Today’s decision reeks of politics and appears to be an effort by the Department of Justice to carry water for the president’s reelection campaign.”
The Justice Department said Texas did not provide enough evidence that voter fraud was likely or widespread.
“The state’s sole justifications for changing the current practice … are to ensure electoral integrity and deter ineligible voters from voting. At the same time, 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,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez in a letter to the Texas secretary of state.
While Texas’s attorney general says the state has convicted more than 50 people of voter fraud since 2002, voting-rights activists say the incidents are rare and usually the result of clerical errors, rather than an attempt to vote fraudulently.
Perez said the Texas law was more likely to prevent Hispanic citizens from being able to vote. Between six and 11 percent of registered Latino voters in Texas do not have government-issued identification, according to Perez.
“Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by [the state Department of Public Safety], and that disparity is statistically significant,” Perez writes.
Republicans say that the Texas legislation contains exemptions for the elderly and poor, as well as those who hold religious objections to being photographed. Under the law, the state would provide free voter ID cards for those unable to afford driver’s licenses or state IDs.
“The DOJ has no valid reason for rejecting this important law, which requires nothing more extensive than the type of photo identification necessary to receive a library card or board an airplane,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in statement. “Their denial is yet another example of the Obama administration’s continuing and pervasive federal overreach.”
But Democrats note that to receive the free voter cards, applicants would have to provide original copies of birth certificates or other identifying documents that can take time and money to obtain.
“This unnecessary law would have trampled on the constitutional right to cast a ballot for hundreds of thousands of Texans,” said Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña in a statement. “It’s time the attorney general moves forward and stops working to disenfranchise Texans. Republicans have wasted enough taxpayer dollars defending this voter-suppression legislation.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) dismissed that argument, noting citizens are required to show ID in order to open a bank account, drive a car or board a plane.
“This is an abuse of executive authority and an affront to the citizens of Texas. It’s time for the Obama administration to learn not to mess with Texas,” Smith said in a statement.