The decades-old legal battle between states’ rights and civil rights returns to a familiar venue – a federal courtroom – on Monday as lawyers for the state of Texas try to convince a panel of judges that the U.S. Justice Department has no legal authority to block the state from immediately implementing a voter ID law. Civil rights groups contend that Texas’ 2011 law requiring voters to provide identification with a photo issued by the state or the military discriminates against minority citizens and violates the federal Voting Rights Act. They say it harkens back to state laws designed to disenfranchise minorities, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. “The effort to suppress the vote is not a new thing,” said Leon W. Russell, vice chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors. “What we’ve seen in the last two years, though, is the most egregious effort to compound and collect every single method that anybody could think of that would discourage a person to vote and put it in a piece of legislation and inflict it on our community.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott argues that the state has a responsibility to guard against election fraud, and that its new law is not subject to Justice Department review under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That provision, which has angered Southern conservatives for decades, requires jurisdictions with a historical pattern of discrimination to win federal “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before implementing changes in voting laws or political lines.
Southern states, led by Alabama, have argued that Section 5 is a violation of states’ rights. Texas Republicans have charged that President Barack Obama’s Justice Department has manipulated its powers under the Voting Rights Act to benefit Democrats. “Instead of attacking Texas for enforcing the law, the Department of Justice should learn from the Lone Star State and focus its resources on protecting the integrity of the electoral system nationwide,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, of Humble.