The Justice Department on Monday dropped a crucial objection to Texas’ strict voter-identification law, signaling a significant change from the Obama administration on voting-rights issues. The Republican-led Texas Legislature passed one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country in 2011, requiring voters to show a driver’s license, passport or other government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. The Obama administration’s Justice Department sued Texas to block the law in 2013 and scored a major victory last year after a federal appeals court ruled that the law needed to be softened because it discriminated against minority voters who lacked the required IDs. Opponents of the law said Republican lawmakers selected IDs that were most advantageous for Republican-leaning white voters and discarded IDs that were beneficial to Democratic-leaning minority voters. For example, legislators included licenses to carry concealed handguns, which are predominantly carried by whites, and excluded government employee IDs and public university IDs, which are more likely to be used by blacks, Hispanics and Democratic-leaning younger voters. But the Justice Department under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a judge on Monday that it was withdrawing its claim that Texas enacted the law with a discriminatory intent.
The Justice Department remains a party in the case. But it is pulling back at a crucial phase. If a judge finds the state acted with discriminatory intent, as the Justice Department and other plaintiffs have alleged, Texas could be forced to seek federal approval before it makes any changes to its voting laws or procedures. That would have major impacts on voting rules in Texas and be a potent symbol of the ability of the federal government to be a major brake on voting discrimination nationally.
“This is a complete 180-degree turn,” said Danielle Lang, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that sued Texas and represents some of the Justice Department’s fellow plaintiffs in the voter ID case. Under the Obama administration, she added, the Justice Department was “fully committed to the case.”
“They were full partners,” Ms. Lang said. “This was their case as much as ours.”