The Justice Department blocked Texas' new voter-identification law Monday, arguing that it targets the state's Hispanics — and igniting yet another clash between President Obama's administration and a GOP-run state.
Texas is the second state to have its voter-ID law rejected by the Justice Department, which has cast a critical eye on Republican-controlled legislatures as they move to combat both illegal immigration and voter fraud.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said he was using the federal government's power under the Voting Rights Act to block the state's law. He said the data show that Hispanics could be twice as likely as other groups to lack the right kind of identification.
"Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver's license or a personal identification card issued by [the state's Department of Public Safety], and that disparity is statistically significant," he said in a six-page letter to Texas officials.
Texas already had asked a federal court to hear the case, so a judge will have the final say.
But the timing of the administration's move left some Republicans questioning the motives.
"Today's decision reeks of politics," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and former judge who said the Justice Department is trying to "carry water for the president's re-election campaign."
The issue is likely to play as well on the Republican campaign trail, where presidential candidates have said they would drop objections to voter-identification and state immigration laws.
At stake is the thorny question of which is a bigger problem in the country: voter fraud or vote suppression.
While there have been high-profile cases of invalid registrations, civil rights groups argue that there is little evidence of fraud at the polls. They say the bigger problem is the enactment of laws that make voting tougher.
"This new law is a clear-cut attempt to suppress minority votes and stymie minority participation in our democracy," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Texas State Conference, who cheered the Justice Department's decision.
But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said voter fraud is a real danger and that his own office has won 50 convictions for election fraud in the past decade. He said the Justice Department has prosecuted more than 100 cases in that time.
He listed cases including a woman who submitted her dead mother's ballot, a person who voted twice on Election Day and an election worker who fraudulently cast a ballot under the name of a voter who shared his last name.
Texas is one of a handful of states that, because of past discrimination practices, is required to submit new voting changes to the Justice Department. The department can block any changes it deems will have an adverse impact on minorities, and only a court can overturn its decisions.
Anticipating a negative review, Texas went to court on its own, seeking a final judgment. That case is pending.
Gov. Rick Perry signed the voter-identification legislation in May, capping a six-year fight in the state Legislature. Democrats blocked the law for years, but Republicans captured a supermajority in the state's House and powered the legislation through.
The same scenario played out in other states last year, usually after Republicans won or expanded majorities and pushed voter-identification laws. But in Rhode Island, a Democrat-controlled legislature passed a law imposing a photo-ID requirement in 2014, and it was signed by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, an independent.
In December, the Justice Department blocked South Carolina's new ID law, and department officials have said they are looking at other states' laws.
The cases will come down to arguments over how the laws affect minorities and what steps the states take to lessen the impacts.
The Supreme Court has upheld Indiana's voter-ID law, and backers of the Texas statute said it was modeled on Indiana — though Texas is more restrictive in its list of acceptable identification.
Voters who cannot present identification are allowed to cast provisional ballots but must return within six days with the required ID or must sign an affidavit saying they lost their identification in a natural disaster or have a religious objection to being photographed.
In his letter, Mr. Perez said Texas hasn't taken any steps to make it easier to get an ID, and said the Legislature even rejected a proposal to add extra hours at state offices where driver's licenses or ID cards can be obtained.
Mr. Perez also highlighted the costs of traveling to an office to get identification, and the cost of obtaining a birth certificate or other supporting documents required to get an ID, as burdens that chiefly strike Hispanics, who are more likely to be below poverty levels.
Nationwide, 16 states have voter-ID laws that don't require a photo, while 15 others require a photo.
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