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Old Arguments Rehashed as Voter ID Trial Begins

Opening arguments were made and witnesses testified Monday in a five-day trial pitting Texas against the federal government in a showdown over the state's voter ID law.

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Supporters and opponents of Texas Senate Bill 14 — which requires voters to present photo identification such as a driver’s license, passport or military ID in order to cast a ballot — rehashed old arguments Monday as the state-federal showdown over the voter ID law went in front of a federal three-judge panel.

Opponents have said the law would affect minority and elderly voters unfairly, while proponents have argued that it helps to secure polls against voter fraud.

In the first part of a five-day trial in a U.S. district court in Washington, Monday’s proceedings began with an opening statement from the state of Texas, provided by lawyer Adam Mortara. Statements were also made by the U.S. Department of Justice and "defendant intervenors," such as the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House, who have joined the trial on the side of the Justice Department. The state of Texas then called several witnesses — beginning with Brian Ingram, director of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office, and state Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville — to testify in support of the measure.

“The testimony was as expected,” said Ian Vandewalker, a lawyer with the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, who is among those representing the Texas State Conference for the NAACP and the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “There haven’t been any surprises yet.”

Ingram discussed how voter registration works in Texas, according to Vandewalker and State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, while Aliseda discussed voter fraud.

Tuesday's proceedings were expected to include the end of testimony called by the state and a transition to testimony from witnesses called by the Justice Department. 

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has been monitoring proceedings from his Austin office, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the way the trial has progressed so far.

In the upcoming days, Abbott said, the state's purpose is "to show that the Texas law fully complies with federal law." Abbott said the state would also demonstrate that its law is consistent with both the Indiana and Georgia voter ID laws already in place.

The Texas secretary of state’s office originally submitted SB 14 to the DOJ for preclearance in July 2011, in accordance with a requirement applied to 16 states by Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The DOJ requested more information in September and again in November. The Texas secretary of state’s office provided data in October and again in mid-January, two weeks after the law had been intended to go into effect.

Abbott sued the department 11 days later, promising to drop the suit if preclearance was granted. The DOJ ultimately denied the state’s request for preclearance of the bill in March.

Martinez Fischer, chairman of the MALC, echoed Vandewalker’s sentiments that the state has yet to provide remarkable arguments in the early portion of its allotted 10 hours of trial time. 

“I’m listening and so far I feel like I’m waiting for Texas to put on evidence that demonstrates that this law does not have a discriminatory intent or a discriminatory effect,” Martinez Fischer said.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who is scheduled along with Martinez Fischer to testify this week, said the “burden of proof” remains on the state to show that the law is not discriminatory.

As the afternoon progressed, the state called Maj. Forrest Mitchell from the Criminal Investigations Division of the Texas attorney general's office and state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, to testify, said Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott.

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