Ballot integrity measure. That’s what Republican officials in Texas call SB 14, the voter identification measure designed to make it measurably harder for people there to vote. Not all people, mind you. Just people who don’t own or drive cars, and people who can’t afford to take time off from work to travel long distances to state offices that are not open at convenient times for working people, and elderly people who are ill and young people who cannot afford to pay the cost of new IDs they have never before needed. People, everyone acknowledges, who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican even in the still Red State of Texas. So the headline alone — United States v. Texas — tells you a great deal about what you need to know about the new civil rights lawsuit filed by the Justice Department last Thursday in federal court in Corpus Christi. It tells you that the battle over voting rights in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in late June that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, has become the latest keynote in the nasty national debate between the Obama Administration and its most ardent conservative critics. And it suggests that things are likely going to get worse before they get better.
In Austin and in Washington forces now are marshaled for the fight. Gone is the diplomatic language of Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion in Shelby County, the one that softly declared outdated Congress’s “coverage formula” for determining which discriminatory jurisdictions warranted federal “preclearance” oversight for changes to voting measures. In its place is the raw language of political war. You can learn a great deal about what’s coming next, both in Washington and in Austin, from the way officials quickly described the new lawsuit.
“Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a former state attorney general and supreme court justice. With great cheek, Sen. Cornyn calls the new voter ID law — which, regardless of its racial dimensions, further divides the state’s rich and poor — a law about “voter equality.” As Texans,” he wrote last week, “we reject the notion that the federal government knows what’s best for us. We deserve the freedom to make our own laws and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points.”
Humming the same tune was Governor Rick Perry, the outgoing governor of the state and a longtime advocate of restrictive voting laws. The Obama Administration is trying to “obstruct the will of the people of Texas,” said Gov. Perry. But both the senator and the governor were positively diplomatic with their scorn compared with Greg Abbott, the erstwhile Attorney General of Texas, who used the phrase “gutter politics” to describe the Justice Department’s decision to challenge the state’s new voter identification law, SB 14, one of the most restrictive in the nation, on the grounds that it is discriminatory in both its intent and its effect.