WASHINGTON — A strict new Texas law requiring a photo ID to vote in the upcoming general election was blocked Thursday by federal judges who ruled that the new restrictions would place an unfair burden on minorities and the poor.
It was the second federal court ruling against Texas this week on the basis of the state’s voting and redistricting laws. The state has announced it will appeal both rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The panel of three federal judges stopped Texas from implementing the voter ID law under the Voting Rights Act — a victory for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who had called the Texas law a new poll tax on minorities. He said the court ruling ensures that “every American has the right to vote and have that vote counted.”
The Texas law would have required voters to show a driver’s license or photo identification card issued by the state Department of Public Safety, the military or federal government, a passport or a state-issued concealed gun permit.
Eight states with Republican-controlled legislatures have passed voter ID laws in the last year.
In Texas, GOP legislators had passed the law even though Secretary of State records showed that 800,000 registered Texas voters lacked the required documents.
The panel of judges for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the Texas voter ID law was “the most stringent in the country.”
“It imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities in Texas,” Circuit Court Judge David Tatel wrote in the 156-page opinion.
Tatel was joined by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer and District Judge Robert Wilkins.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said the ruling subverted the will of the people of Texas to protect the integrity of the ballot box.
“Chalk up another victory for fraud,” Perry said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court “where we are confident we will prevail.”
Abbott announced earlier this week he would also appeal a ruling by a separate federal judicial panel that the Texas redistricting plans for congressional and legislative districts were discriminatory and would dilute minority voting strength.
In the voter ID case, lawyers for Texas had argued that the state’s voter ID law should be upheld because similar laws in Georgia and Indiana had been found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be constitutional methods to protect the voting process.
Minority lawmakers and rights groups had argued that the new law was designed to suppress turnout of minorities, the elderly and students — groups which vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
During the week-long trial in July, the judges voiced skepticism about the law’s intent and whether it would discriminate against minorities. In their ruling, the judges cited the Republican-controlled Legislature’s dismissal of Democratic amendments to address concerns by minority groups “that would have made this a far closer case.”
During the trial, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, testified that some of his constituents in a sweeping border district between San Antonio and El Paso would have to drive up to 120 miles to receive a Department of Public Safety-issued driver’s license or identification card.
Texas also charges $22 for a birth certificate needed to obtain a identification card.
Democrats derided the law as a “solution in search of a problem” after trial testimony showed that only one indictment had been handed down in the past two election cycles for voter impersonation at a polling place, despite an investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s Office into voter fraud. The majority of voter fraud cases in Texas occurred with mail in or absentee ballots, which were not addressed by the voter ID laws passed by the Legislature.
Critics of the law applauded the court’s ruling.
“Texas simply needs to wake up,” said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said, “An attack on the right to vote is under way across the country through laws designed to make it more difficult to cast a ballot.”
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC), said the voter ID law “would have muffled the voice of those that need government’s ear the most — Latinos, African-Americans, the poor and the elderly.”
MALC had joined the Justice Department to oppose the lawsuit filed by Texas asking the federal court panel to approve the voter ID law under Voting Rights Act requirements and allow it to be implemented.
In the ruling, the judicial panel sidestepped Abbott’s claim that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring the state to get pre-approval to changes in voting procedures, was unconstitutional. The court instructed Texas and the U.S. Justice Department to address Abbott’s unconstitutionality claim next month.
Although lawyers for the state of Texas said the voter ID laws were similar to those in Indiana and Georgia, Justice Department lawyer Matthew Colangelo argued that the Texas law was passed with intent to discriminate and that voters would be disenfranchised “the day it goes into effect.”
The bill was passed against a backdrop of huge Hispanic population growth in the state that gave Texas four new congressional seats, Colangelo said.
Texas grew by 4 million over the past decade, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Roughly 90 percent of the growth was attributed to minorities, and Latinos alone accounted for 65 percent of the population growth.
Texas is one of several mostly southern states that must have changes to voting procedures or elections laws approved by the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Those states are covered because of a past history of racial discrimination.
Sen. John Cornyn and other Texas leaders said they backed Abbott’s appeal of the ruling.
Abbott, attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa, said Texas was being treated differently from Indiana, which has implemented a voter ID law upheld by the Supreme Court.
“We believe this ruling divides the U.S. — some states are allowed to have voter ID laws and some states are not,” Abbott said.
Gonzalez said the two judicial rulings against Texas for discriminatory laws on redistricting and voter ID show the need to keep the state under the Voting Rights Act.
A ruling on Texas redistricting plans for congressional and legislative districts was rejected by judges earlier this week because it would dilute minority voting strength and disenfranchise Latinos and blacks from electing candidates of their choice.
Gonzalez said the discriminatory laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature were done to “tilt the playing field for one party over another.”
“I can’t believe Attorney General Abbott continues to be offended and surprised,” Gonzalez said, adding that the state’s legal challenges to Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions were nothing more than “lawsuit abuse.”
Patricia Kilday Hart also contributed to this story.