Federal court rejects new Texas voter photo ID law

August 31, 2012 - 3:35 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas law requiring voters to show picture ID at the polls was struck down by a three-judge federal panel, who said the state failed to prove the legislation wouldn't harm low-income and minority voters.

Thursday's unanimous ruling was the second legal defeat in three days for one of America's most conservative states, which on Tuesday had a different Washington panel reject its new congressional and state Legislature district maps on the grounds that they discriminated against blacks and Hispanics.

But while it has lost those battles, Texas vows it may yet win the war — in the Supreme Court.

The Republican-dominated state Legislature passed a voter ID law in 2011, a measure that had long been backed by conservatives statewide. Yet the court ruled Thursday that the law imposes "strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor" and noted that Texas minorities are more likely to live in poverty.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican widely rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2014, said it's now too close to Election Day to salvage the law before November. But he said he'd appeal to the Supreme Court and prevail, pointing to past decisions upholding similar "ballot integrity safeguards" in Georgia and Indiana. He is also appealing the redistricting ruling.

"The (Supreme Court) said that having to take the time to gather all your documents, travel down to the Department of Motor Vehicles and pose for a photograph simply is not an infringement on the right to vote," Abbott said in an interview, citing previous voter ID cases.

Texas' fight is part of a widespread push, largely by Republican-controlled legislatures and governors' offices, to impose strict identification requirements on voters. 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.

Reacting to Thursday's ruling, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration "believes it should be easier for eligible citizens to vote, to register and vote.

"We should not be imposing unnecessary obstacles and barriers to voter participation," Carney said.

Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, though, offered a harsh rebuke: "Chalk up another victory for fraud."

He did not give specific examples of fraud, but when Texas presented its case before the federal panel in July, it called witnesses who testified that either they had heard about fraud or had spoken to constituents who were concerned about it. The Justice Department countered with witnesses who said that in-person voter fraud incidents were extremely rare.

Thursday's judges were Rosemary Collyer, an appointee of former President George W. Bush; Robert Wilkins, an appointee of President Barack Obama; and David Tatel, an appeals court judge appointed by Bill Clinton, who wrote the decision for the panel.

Tatel called the Texas law "the most stringent in the nation" and noted that it would impose a heavier burden on voters than the Indiana law upheld by the Supreme Court and one in Georgia, which the Justice Department allowed to take effect without objection.

"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," the opinion stated. "This is retrogression."

Jon Greenbaum is chief counsel for the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other parties in the suit. He said the judges were careful to spell out ways that Texas can soften the voter ID law to stand up to future legal scrutiny.

"The court let Texas know exactly what it had done wrong and what it could to do fix it," Greenbaum said. "They made absolutely sure that they weren't overreaching"

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.

Abbott said the Texas voter ID law has but "minor" differences to the one upheld in Indiana — which, unlike Texas, does not have to seek preclearance to change voting laws.

In Thursday's opinion, the court appeared troubled by the fact that even though Texas would provide government-issued IDs for free, impoverished Texans would have to pay $22 for a copy of their birth certificate in order to obtain a voting ID. A birth certificate in Indiana, Abbott said, is $9.

"I don't think a $13 difference is a constitutional difference," Abbott said.

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Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.