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updated: 8/31/2012 5:19 AM

Federal court blocks Texas voter ID law

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Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- A federal court on Thursday blocked a controversial new voter ID law in Texas, ruling the state failed to show that the law would not harm the voting rights of minorities.

The three-judge panel in the historic case said that evidence also showed that costs of obtaining a voter ID would fall most heavily on poor African Americans and Hispanics in Texas.

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Evidence submitted by Texas to prove its law did not discriminate was "unpersuasive, invalid, or both," wrote David. Tatel, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in the panel's 56-page opinion.

The ruling will likely have political implications in the coming elections. Republicans and Democrats have been arguing over whether increasingly tough voter ID laws discriminate against African Americans and Hispanics.

Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott said the state will appeal Thursday's ruling to the Supreme Court, which is the next stop in a voting rights case.

"Today's decision is wrong on the law and improperly prevents Texas from implementing the same type of ballot integrity safeguards that are employed by Georgia and Indiana -- and were upheld by the Supreme Court," Abbott said in a statement.

Texas is the largest state covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval or "preclearance" of any voting changes in states that have a history of discrimination. Because of Texas's discrimination history, the voter ID law signed last year by its Republican governor, Rick Perry, had to be cleared by the Justice Department. The department blocked the law in March, saying it would endanger minority voting rights. Texas sued the department, leading to a week-long trial in July.

Tatel was joined in the Texas decision by U.S. district judges Rosemary Collyer, appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush and Robert L. Wilkins, who was nominated in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

Earlier this week, a separate three-judge panel in Washington threw out Texas's redistricting plans saying the maps drawn by the Republican-led legislature undermined the political clout of minorities who are responsible for the state's population growth.

The Obama administration opposed both laws because it says they threaten to disenfranchise millions of Latino and African American voters.

The challenges are part of an escalating national legal battle over voter ID laws that has become more intense because it is an election year. Eight states passed voter ID laws last year, and critics say the new statutes could hurt turnout among minority voters and others, many of whom helped elect Obama in 2008. But supporters of the measures -- seven of which were signed by Republican governors and one by an independent -- say that requiring voters to show specific photo IDs would prevent voter fraud.

Republican lawmakers have argued that the voter ID law is needed to clean up voter rolls, which they say are filled with the names of illegal immigrants, ineligible felons and the deceased. Texas, they argue, is asking for no more identification than people need to board an airplane, get a library card or enter many government buildings.

In a courtroom just down the hallway from where judges heard arguments over the Texas voter ID statute, lawyers for the Justice Department and South Carolina are squaring off this week over a similar measure passed by the state's legislature last year.

The Justice Department rejected the South Carolina voter ID law in December, the first time that a voting law was refused clearance by Justice in nearly 20 years. South Carolina sued the government to overturn the decision.

The law would require South Carolina voters to show one of five forms of photo identification to be permitted to cast a ballot: a state driver's license, an ID card issued by the state's department of motor vehicles, a U.S. military ID, a passport, or a new form of free photo ID issued by county election officials. Lawyers for South Carolina say the law was needed to prevent election fraud and to "enhance public confidence in the integrity of the law."

"No one disputes that a state must have a system for identifying eligible registered voters who present themselves to vote," Chris Bartolomucci, a lawyer for South Carolina, told the three-judge panel on Monday. "That is just common sense."

The Justice Department and attorneys representing civil rights groups, including the NAACP and ACLU, countered in court that the law did discriminate against minority voters and cannot pass muster under the Voting Rights Act.

"A disproportionate number of those individuals are members of racial minority groups," said Bradley Heard, a Justice Department lawyer, in describing how the law would affect South Carolina voters.

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. gave a speech in Texas and referred to voter ID laws as "poll taxes," referring to fees in some states in the South that were used to disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era. Under the Texas law, the minimum cost to obtain a voter ID for a Texas resident without a copy of his birth certificate would be $22, according to the Justice Department.

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