Justice Department Sues Texas Over Strict Voter ID Law

The Justice Department is suing the state of Texas over its strict voter ID law, saying it discriminates against minorities. The attorney general also wants a judge to order Texas to get federal permission before it changes its election procedures.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And Audie Cornish. The Justice Department sued the state of Texas today, asking a court to throw out the state's strict voter ID law. The reason, it says, the law discriminates against minorities at the ballot box. Attorney General Eric Holder also wants a court order requiring Texas to get federal permission before it makes any changes to its election procedures.

The case continues an effort by the Obama administration to use other parts of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court threw out a key section of the law this year. With us to talk about the new case is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And Carrie, what's the basis for today's case against Texas? Obviously, the Justice Department has already tangled with the state over its voter ID laws.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Exactly. All the way back in 2011, Audie, Texas passed this voter ID law, which is considered the most strict in the nation. And under the system in place at the time, Texas was required to get federal approval before it made any election changes. The federal government declined to approve the law, said it was discriminatory.

Texas took the Justice Department to court. The Justice Department won, but now, because of this Supreme Court ruling earlier this year gutting a key part of the Voting Rights Act, that whole system has been thrown into upheaval and lawyers for Texas say that case should be thrown out as moot. The attorney general today agreed that was the case but that was not the end of the story for this Justice Department.

Eric Holder, instead, has turned around and filed suit against the state of Texas in a federal court in that state, arguing that the voter ID law imposes discriminatory burdens on minority voters - black and Latino voters, poor voters who have a hard time getting this ID.

CORNISH: So, Carrie, what about the Texas voter ID law is so controversial?

JOHNSON: Well, in earlier legal wrangling in this case, a special three-judge court based here in Washington, D.C. found that the Texas law was the most strict in the entire country in a slate of voter ID laws that have come up through Republican state houses across the nation. And the special court found the law had a discriminatory impact on minorities, in part because it was so hard to get to a place in the vast state of Texas through public transportation, sometimes 200, 250 miles in order to go and pay a fee and get a voter ID.

One quirk in this Texas law is that you cannot use a student ID in order to register to vote, or to vote; you have to use other means, including things like concealed handgun licenses. But state student IDs are not okay, and many minority voting groups and the Justice Department say that's just wrong. It's wrong because it imposes a greater burden on black and Latino voters and on poor people. And that's the basis of this Justice Department case.

CORNISH: So what are state officials saying about this latest legal fight?

JOHNSON: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is a Republican who is running for governor in the state, has been very resistant - the Obama administration butting into state affairs, as he sees it. He's defended the voter ID law at every turn and the state's redistricting maps, which have been under challenge as well. He's pointed out the DOJ will have a very tough road ahead, Audie, to prove that the state discriminated.

That's because many election law experts say under the old system, before the Supreme Court ruling, the burden was on the state. Now the burden is on the federal government and the minority voting groups. And that's a really hard burden because back in 2008, not that long ago, the Supreme Court ruled that as long as there's a neutral, presumptively valid reason for voter ID, it's going to be very hard to throw those laws out.

CORNISH: So, Carrie, walk us through what happens next.

JOHNSON: Okay. So this is the beginning of yet another long legal fight between the Justice Department and the state of Texas in two fronts. They're battling not only now over this new voter ID law case but also a preexisting redistricting case. And this could wind up back at the Supreme Court all over again. Until that time, Audie, both sides are going to use these cases for their own political benefit. President Obama and the Justice Department can use these cases to rally President Obama's base. And Republicans in the state of Texas will use the lawsuits for the same purpose. For instance, today, Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said he was very offended by the notion that, quote, "the lame duck Obama administration would try to turn his state blue."

CORNISH: Carrie, thanks for talking with us.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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