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Justice Department Rejects Voter ID Law

UPDATED: The U.S. Department of Justice has rejected Texas' application for preclearance of its voter ID law, saying the state did not prove that the measure would not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters.

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Updated, 3:30 p.m.

The Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus filed a motion to intervene in the state’s lawsuit against the federal government that seeks immediate implementation of the state’s voter ID law. During a conference call this afternoon with reporters, attorneys for the groups said the lawsuit will move forward independently, despite today’s decision by the Department of Justice.

“I expect that Texas will come in and complain to the D.C. court about the objection letter. But formally, technically the state in this lawsuit has the burden of proof,” said Bob Kengle, co-counsel and the co-director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. “So the issue is not whether Texas satisfied its burden of proof on its submission to the Justice Department.”

Original story:

The U.S. Department of Justice has rejected Texas' application for preclearance of its voter ID law, saying the state did not prove that the bill would not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters.

“The department’s letter states that Texas did not meet its burden under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of showing that the law will not have a discriminatory effect on minority voters, and therefore the department objects to the Texas voter identification law,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman. “According to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5%, and potentially 120%, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack the required identification.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote in a letter to Keith Ingram, the director of Texas’ elections division on Monday: 

“As noted above, an applicant for an election identification certificate will have to travel to a driver’s license office. This raises three discrete issues. First, according to the most recent American Community Survey three-year estimates, 7.3 percent of Hispanic or Latino households do not have an available vehicle, as compared with only 3.8 percent of non-Hispanic white households that lack an available vehicle. Statistically significant correlations exist between the Hispanic voting-age population percentage of a county, and the percentage of occupied housing units without a vehicle.

Second, in 81 of the state’s 254 counties, there are no operational driver’s license offices. The disparity in the rates between Hispanics and non-Hispanics with regard to the possession of either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS is particularly stark in counties without driver’s license offices. According to the September 2011 data, 10.0 percent of Hispanics in counties without driver’s license offices do not have either form of identification, compared to 5.5 percent of non-Hispanics. According to the January 2012 data, that comparison is 14.6 percent of Hispanics in counties without driver’s license offices, as compared to 8.8 percent of non-Hispanics. During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles roundtrip in order to reach a driver’s license office. The legislature tabled amendments that would have, for example, provided reimbursement to voters who live below the poverty line for travel expenses incurred in applying for the requisite identification.”

The bill, Senate Bill 14 by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, was one of Gov. Rick Perry’s “emergency items” during the 82nd Legislature and requires voters to present a state-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license, military ID, U.S. passport or concealed handgun license before casting a ballot.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who expected the federal government's rejection, said late last week he plans to forge ahead with the lawsuit he filed last month to have the bill implemented immediately. The Justice Department has until April 9 to respond to the lawsuit.

Abbott has cited the department’s rejections of recently passed laws similar to Texas’ voter ID law, not to mention that less-than-subtle warning from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said in Austin in December that the department would place Texas’ law under a microscope.

“It [the request] was submitted to them in July, and they kept delaying and delaying and delaying," Abbot said on Thursday. “We saw them reject a similar proposal in South Carolina and we couldn’t see them rejecting South Carolina and approving Texas."

The voter ID law “would have trampled on the constitutional right to cast a ballot for hundreds of thousands of Texans, said Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña, praising the Justice Department’s ruling. “Republicans have wasted enough taxpayer dollars defending this voter suppression legislation.”

Below is a timeline of actions and decisions over the past year affecting Texas’ voter ID law:

March 23, 2011: SB 14 passes the Texas House of Representatives following debate on more than 60 amendments and seven points of order. The House discussed the bill for about 12 hours.

May 9, 2011: The Texas Senate adopts the voter ID conference committee report, which tweaked some of the amendments approved during the House floor debate.

May 16, 2011: The Texas House approves the committee’s report, which removed a provision that would have allowed residences of federally recognized tribal lands to show their tribal IDs to vote. The bill’s House sponsor, Patricia Harless, R-Spring, also introduced an “outside the bounds resolution” that included in the bill a provision in which free IDs would be made available for the sole purpose of casting a ballot. A provision to exclude people who attest under oath they do not have their photos takes due to religious purposes was also adopted.

July 2011: The Texas Secretary of State’s office submits to the U.S. Department of Justice the required request for preclearance. Because of Texas' history of racial discrimination, Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act gives the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts the authority to review laws that would affect voter participation. Fifteen other states are subject to the preclearance rule.

August 2011: The National Conference of State Legislators issues a report explaining the differences in Texas’ law compared to others recently passed. The report concludes that only six other states, like Texas, have a strict photo requirement: Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Tennessee. Seven states — Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota — ask voters for photo ID, but still allow them to cast a ballot if they don't have a photo ID and can meet other specific criteria. Sixteen other states require voters to show some form of ID, though not necessarily with a photo.

“The law puts Texas in the group with Indiana and Georgia, which I would categorize as fairly strict,” Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told the Tribune.

September 2011: Arguing the bill unfairly affects minorities and the elderly, a coalition of civil and rights groups writes the Department of Justice urging denial of the preclearance request. In a letter submitted during the public comment period by the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Justice Center and the Southwest Workers Union, the groups allege that instead of actually providing proof the legislation was enacted for non-discriminatory reasons, the state relied simply on its claim that officials did not intend on diluting the voting strength of minority groups.

Perry’s office responds, saying: "Voter ID was enacted to ensure the integrity of the ballot box, protecting the most cherished right we enjoy as citizens and ensuring our elections are fair beyond reproach. By applying to voting the same standard that is commonly applied in cashing a check or applying for a library card, Voter ID can ensure an accurate reflection of the will of the voters.”

Sept. 23, 2011 The DOJ tells the Texas Secretary of State’s office that it needs more information to render a decision on whether SB 14 will “have neither the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."

Specifically, it wants to know details about the estimated 605,600 registered voters who do not currently possess a valid ID. The department asked the state to identify how many members of that group have Spanish surnames, which counties they reside in and an estimated number by race. The DOJ also requested that the state provide the number of registered voters in Texas with a Spanish surname who currently possess a legal form of identification.

Oct. 5, 2011: The state responds and says it does not ask about voters' race when they register. Instead, the Texas Secretary of State submitted a list of all the Hispanic surnames in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state also offered to run that list against the list of registered voters to determine how many have Hispanic names, and it offered to use data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issues driver's licenses, to assist in obtaining the information.

Nov. 17, 2011: The department still isn’t satisfied and tells the state it wants more information.  The state responds but tells the Tribune, “The state warned that the results would be skewed because DPS didn’t include a specific category for Hispanic drivers until 2009.”

Dec. 13, 2011: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tells an audience at the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin that the federal government will fight to ensure minority voting rights are not eroded by actions of state legislatures. He says the Texas bill will undergo a fair and thorough review.

December 2011: The American Civil Liberties Union files a suit in federal court challenging the state of Wisconsin’s voter ID law. ACLU attorneys allege that bill is less strict that the Texas proposal but will also disenfranchise minority and elderly voters. Nonetheless, a decision on the Wisconsin bill could be used as a guide to determine what other states can and cannot do.

“This lawsuit is the opening act in what will be a long struggle to undo the damage done to the right to vote by strict photo ID laws and other voter suppression measures,” Jon Sherman, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “Across the nation, legislators are robbing countless American citizens of their fundamental right to vote, and in the process, undermining the very legitimacy of our democracy.

Dec. 23, 2011: The Department of Justice issues a ruling rejecting South Carolina’s voter ID law.

Jan. 13, 2011: The state of Texas resubmits its request for preclearance, and the Department of Justice has 60 says from this state to make a decision. Again, the state warns about the reliability of the data.

“By requesting Spanish surname data, the DOJ’s request acknowledges that the DPS database does not accurately reflect the number of Hispanic voters in Texas who possess a driver’s license or photo identification card,” Keith Ingram, the director of the state’s elections division wrote to the department.

“Nonetheless, in a good faith attempt to satisfy the DOJ’s request, the State has compiled the requested data — despite the State’s reservations about the reliability of that data.”

Jan. 23, 2012: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott files suit against the U.S Department of Justice in an attempt to have the state’s voter ID law implemented immediately.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter identification laws are constitutional,” Abbott said in a prepared statement. “Texas should be allowed the same authority other states have to protect the integrity of elections. To fast-track that authority, Texas is taking legal action in a D.C. court seeking approval of its voter identification law.”

Abbott says his office will drop the suit if preclearance is granted.

March 7, 2012: The Texas Secretary of State tells the Tribune the state will be ready to have the required outreach and voter-education requirements in place by the May 29 primary if the preclearance request is granted.

“As I understand it, they have three options: They can issue preclearance, they can deny preclearance or they can request more information,” said Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the secretary of state. 

April 9, 2012: The Justice Department’s deadline to respond to the state’s lawsuit.

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