Judges paint bleak picture as Texas seeks voter ID law OK


McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The Texas voter ID law came under heavy fire Friday from the three-judge panel charged with determining its legality under the Voting Rights Act.

After a weeklong trial, the courtroom was packed as the final arguments were made before the judges in the high-stakes Texas voter ID case.

For the state of Texas -- and state Attorney General Greg Abbott, in particular -- it was the final pitch in an aggressive move to secure pre-clearance, as required under the Voting Rights Act, of its photo ID requirement for voters in time for Election Day.

For the federal government -- and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in particular -- it was the chance to make the Texas voter ID law the test case against what a Justice Department lawyer said was a return to an era of discrimination against minorities, with numerous states enacting what Holder sees as restrictive laws. In a speech to the NAACP last week in Houston, Holder called the laws "poll taxes," the voting fees aimed at minorities that were struck down by the courts during the civil rights era.

The three judges sharply questioned John Hughes, the attorney representing Texas when he claimed "photo ID laws have no effect on turnout."

District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who is presiding, said that there had to be "an uneven influence" on voters who did not have a driver's license or economic means to obtain an ID -- a birth certificate can cost $22.

Hughes responded that evidence in states like Indiana and Georgia with similar laws indicated that "no one is prevented from voting."

The judges must determine whether the law reduces the access to vote for minorities, and whether there was an intent to do so by the Legislature under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David Tatel reminded the courtroom that it was up to the state to prove that the law was not retrogressive.

District Judge Robert Wilkins also was pointed in his questioning, asking whether the poll tax and literacy tests -- which are now illegal -- would stand up under the state's approach.

Much of the final arguments turned on expert testimony and studies, with the Justice Department scoffing at a study promoted by Texas that showed a high satisfaction rate from voters questioned about photo ID but that only had a 2 percent response rate.

But the state skewered the Justice Department's "no identification" list, which showed thousands of Texans supposedly with no ID who turned out to just have different names on their voter registration and driver's licenses, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

The state would like a ruling by the end of August in time to implement the law before the Nov. 6 elections. Collyer indicated that a quick turnaround was likely.

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