Seven months ago, Gov. Rick Perry stood at a lectern in the Texas Capitol flanked by dozens of fellow Republican state lawmakers to celebrate a new state law.
“It’s our duty to ensure that elections are fair, beyond reproach, accurately reflecting the will of the people,” Perry said. “And that’s what voter ID is all about.” He then ceremoniously signed the bill requiring Texas voters to present a valid state or federal photo ID to vote. The plan was for Senate Bill 14 to be enacted Jan. 1, in time for the 2012 elections.
But that timeline is in doubt as the Justice Department continues reviewing new voter identification laws passed in Texas and other states. Because of a history of racial discrimination, Texas remains one of many states still subject to one or more sections of the Voting Rights Act. That requires Texas to get federal approval, or pre-clearance, for any changes to voting procedures.
Justice officials have questioned whether the Texas law would hurt minority voters. At a high-profile speech in Austin this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed many Democratic critics in arguing that in-person voter fraud is not a common problem and that photo identification measures may do nothing but suppress turnout of minority and low-income voters.
“We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country,” Holder said.
On Friday, the Justice Department rejected South Carolina’s voter ID law, saying it would make it harder for minorities to cast ballots. The law requires voters to show poll workers a state-issued driver’s license or ID card, a U.S. military ID or a U.S. passport. South Carolina’s attorney general said he will fight Justice’s ruling in court.
Voting laws vary nationwide. Thirty-one states require all voters to show ID before voting at polls, according to the National Council on State Legislatures. Fifteen require photo identification but differ in how they handle voters who show up without it.
The new Texas law allows for poll workers to accept photo identification issued by the state or federal government, including driver’s licenses, passports, military identification and concealed-handgun licenses. A voter with a disability who has no photo identification can apply for a permanent exemption.
Supporters of the law have said it ensures that only eligible voters will cast ballots and note that photo ID is required in many everyday occurrences.