AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A tough Texas law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls discriminates against low-income blacks and Hispanics, a federal court ruled Thursday, wiping out for the November election a measure championed by conservatives and setting up a potential U.S. Supreme Court showdown.
In Washington, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the 2011 law imposes "strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor" and noted that Texas' racial minorities are more likely to live in poverty.
It was the state's second major loss in court in three days, coming after a separate federal panel ruled Tuesday that Texas' Republican-dominated Legislature failed to avoid "discriminatory purposes" when drawing new maps for congressional districts and both houses of the state Legislature to reflect Texas' booming population.
"In a matter of two days, the state of Texas has had its dirty laundry aired out across the national stage," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Conference. "This deals with the despicable issues of discrimination, voter suppression, these are things that we're not proud of."
The voter ID decision could set a precedent for upcoming legal challenges to similar laws in other states. South Carolina's strict photo ID law is on trial this week in the same federal courthouse.
It also underscores a widespread push, largely by Republican-controlled legislatures and governors' offices, to impose strict identification requirements on voters. But Democrats say fraud at the polls is largely nonexistent and that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise minorities, poor people and college students — all groups that tend to vote Democratic.
State Attorney General Greg Abbott said he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, "where we are confident we will prevail." He also told the Associated Press late Thursday that there is now definitely not enough time to salvage the law for the November election.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry said, "Chalk up another victory for fraud. Today, federal judges subverted the will of the people of Texas."
Perry did not reference specific examples, but Texas presented witnesses during court proceedings in July who testified that either they had heard about fraud or had spoken to constituents who were concerned about it.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, called witnesses who said that in-person voter fraud incidents were extremely rare. And Thursday's ruling said fraud wasn't the deciding factor and instead found that Texas forcing voters to show ID put an unnecessary burden on the poor.
The Justice Department also called several lawmakers, all of them Democrats, who said they detected a clear racial motive in the push for the law. Lawyers for Texas argued that the state was simply tightening its laws.
"The law was so broad and unreasonable that clearly its goal was to suppress minority votes and thereby change the nature of the Texas electorate," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas.
Texas called experts in July who demonstrated that voter ID laws had a minimal effect on turnout, and Republican state lawmakers testified that the legislation was the result of a popular demand for more election protections.
Judge David Tatel, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, wrote the decision. The other judges were Rosemary Collyer, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, and Robert Wilkins, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
Tatel called the Texas law "the most stringent in the nation." He said it would impose a heavier burden on voters than a similar law in Indiana, previously upheld by the Supreme Court, and one in Georgia, which the Justice Department allowed to take effect without objection.
The opinion went on to state that, "Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by (the voter ID law), likely be unable to vote in the next election. This is retrogression."
It also spelled out what Texas could do to soften its voter ID law and eventually be upheld in court — but Abbott's vow to appeal means Texas may be looking for a larger Supreme Court battle regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Under Section 5 of the act, Texas and all or parts of 15 other states must obtain clearance from the Justice Department's civil rights division or a federal court before carrying out changes in elections. The states are mostly in the South and all have a history of discriminating against blacks, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives or Hispanics.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the voter ID ruling and "the decision earlier this week on the Texas redistricting plans not only reaffirm — but help protect — the vital role the Voting Rights Act plays in our society to ensure that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted."
Last December, South Carolina's voter ID requirement became the first such law to be rejected by the Justice Department in nearly 20 years. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the attorney general made a "very serious error" by blocking it.
In 2011, new voter ID laws passed in Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, while Alabama and Tennessee tightened existing voter ID laws to require photo ID. Governors in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina vetoed such laws.
This year, Pennsylvania enacted its own law and voting-rights groups are appealing to the state Supreme Court. And in Wisconsin, a county judge ruled in July that the state's new photo ID law impairs the right to vote. In an appeal, Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen argues the law doesn't impose an undue burden because voters can get free state ID cards.
Associated Press writers Pete Yost and Mark Sherman in Washington and Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.