Texas Defends Voter ID Law

A federal panel on Monday began hearing a lawsuit by the state of Texas against the U.S. Department of Justice, to allow the state's new voter ID law to go into effect. The Justice Department has blocked the law, arguing that it violates the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately harming Hispanic voters, who are less likely to have the required photo ID. Melissa Block speaks to NPR's Pam Fessler.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Another battle in the ramp up to this fall's election is the one over voter ID requirements, and that battle came to a federal court here in Washington today. Last year, Texas passed a bill requiring voters to show photo identification before they vote. The Justice Department blocked that law from taking effect. The department says the requirement would disproportionately affect the state's Hispanic voters, and that would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Texas argues that it needs the law to protect against voter fraud.

NPR's Pam Fessler was in the courtroom today and she joins me now. Pam, first, a little background: Why does Texas need the Justice Department approval for this law?

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Well, under the Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of several states that has to get Justice Department approval for any voting law changes because it has a history of voter discrimination. So it passed a law last year. The Justice Department reviewed it. And in March, it announced that it would not allow the law to go into effect. It said that it found that many voters in the state don't have photo I.D. and that Hispanic voters were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic voters to not have the I.D. So one option that Texas had under the Voting Rights Act is to take the case before a three-judge federal panel, which is what it's done, and that's the case we're hearing this week.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the state's response to the Justice Department's objections. We mentioned they're concerned about fraud, for example.

FESSLER: That's right. Texas says it needs the photo I.D. to prevent fraud in the state. And today, the state's chief election official, Keith Ingram, testified that there has been fraud in the state as recently as May. He testified that at least four votes were cast in the names of people who had already died in the state primaries. He said without photo I.D., that type of thing is very difficult to stop. The Justice Department says that at least 1.4 million Texas voters don't have state-issued photo I.D., but the state is arguing that DOJ's analysis of these numbers is flawed.

It says it doesn't take into account people who might have passports or military I.D., which also can be used. And once again, the chief election official Keith Ingram testified that his name is actually on DOJ's list of those without I.D. even though he has it.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. Well, has the DOJ responded to that claim from Texas then?

FESSLER: Well, the Justice Department's attorney, Elizabeth Westfall, had opening remarks today. She, once again, said that Hispanic and black voters in the state are indeed less likely to have the required I.D. and that under the law, the burden is on Texas to show that the law is not discriminatory, that its voter I.D. law is not discriminatory. The federal government also says Texas has not shown any evidence that fraud is rampant in the state. There may be a few cases here and there but it's not rampant and that if it - even if it was that photo I.D. would actually prevent it.

BLOCK: Pam, Texas is not alone here. The voter I.D. law there is one of many state laws that have been passed in just the last few years. What's the status of those other laws, and would they also be affected by the decision in this case?

FESSLER: Well, right now, we have 10 states that have - require voters to show some form of I.D. But one of them, Pennsylvania's new law, is being challenged in court. There are several other states - Mississippi, New Hampshire, Virginia and Alabama - that have also passed I.D. laws, but they still need DOJ's approval. South Carolina also passed an I.D. law which has been blocked by the Justice Department. South Carolina is suing in federal court to have that decision overturned. So right now, everybody's watching this Texas case to see which way the wind is blowing and whether or not the issue might eventually end up in the Supreme Court.

BLOCK: And, Pam, briefly, we mentioned it's a three-judge panel. What happens now? And what's the timeline?

FESSLER: Well, they can make a decision anytime. We're expecting the case to be heard throughout this week. Texas has said it needs a decision by August 31 if the voter I.D. - if it's able to implement the law by the November elections. After August 31, it'll be too late.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Pam Fessler. Pam, thank you.

FESSLER: Thank you.

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