A panel of federal judges on Friday peppered lawyers for Texas with skeptical questions about the state’s new voter identification requirement and whether it runs afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws. At the end of a week-long trial in Washington, D.C.’s District Court, the three judges questioned whether requiring voters to present government issued photo identification – such as a driver’s license or passport – was too onerous, and may disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters. “People who want to vote already have an ID or can easily get one,’’ said John Hughes, one of the lawyers representing Texas. Among election lawyers, the case is seen as an early legal test for a number of voter ID laws recently passed or under consideration by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Texas passed its law in 2011, saying it would help prevent voter fraud. In March the Justice Department moved to block it, saying it discriminated against minorities by making it more difficult for them to vote. The Obama administration has also moved to block a voter ID law in South Carolina, a case that will be heard next month.
The two sides in the Texas case presented very different pictures of the law’s likely effects. The Justice Department offered analysis suggesting more than 1 million voters in the state would have a harder time voting because of the law. Lawyers for Texas offered their own expert who argued there is no disparity in the prevalence of government-issued identification among races or ethnic groups, and the law would not affect voter turnout in any event.
One of the judges, Rosemary Collyer, signaled her doubt about the Texas expert’s findings, saying they “took enormous hits’’ during cross-examination. Another judge, Robert Wilkins, questioned how it could be fair to require people in certain remote parts of the state to drive more than 100 miles to get a driver’s license in order to vote, while the rules of federal court say it is an undue burden to subpoena someone to travel that far to appear in court. Mr. Hughes, the lawyer for Texas, said that people living in those sparsely populated parts of the state are accustomed to making a long drive for all sorts of mundane tasks. The case is part of a wave of new legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act, landmark civil-rights legislation passed in 1965 to address widespread discriminatory practices that had the effect of damping minorities’ participation in elections and undercutting their political power.