A U.S. court in Texas heard arguments on Tuesday in a case over a law requiring voters to present photo identification, a move the state's Republican leaders say will prevent fraud while plaintiffs call it an attempt at suppressing minority turnout.
The case is also part of a new strategy by the Obama administration to challenge voting laws it says discriminate by race in order to counter a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that freed states from strict federal oversight.
The trial that started on Tuesday at the U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi stems from a battle over stringent voter ID measures signed into law by Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, in 2011. The law requires voters to present a photo ID such as a concealed handgun license or driver's license, but it excludes student IDs as invalid.
Plaintiffs argued in opening arguments the law will hit the elderly and poorer voters including racial minorities the hardest because they are less likely to have such IDs.
Thus, plaintiffs said, they would be more likely to be turned away from the polls on voting day, suppressing the turnout of groups who traditionally have supported Democrats.
"Although Texas has yet to identify a single instance of in-person voter fraud, the state nevertheless insists that a racially discriminatory photo ID law is necessary to prevent it," said Natasha Korgaonkar, assistant counsel with the civil rights group NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos is expected to last two weeks with a decision handed down before Nov. 4 state and U.S. congressional elections.
Defense lawyers said in opening arguments that there is no evidence to show that the law is discriminatory.
The office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who is running for governor in the November election, said in a statement ahead of the trial that the law is aimed at protecting the integrity of elections.
"Voter ID has already been used in several elections in Texas without the disenfranchisement claimed by partisans who seem to be against election integrity," it said on Friday.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in July that Texas would be the start of his push to overturn the voter ID laws.
The Obama administration sees such statutes as discriminatory and has launched a nationwide rollout of cases to work around Shelby County v. Holder, the Alabama case in which the Supreme Court on June 25 invalidated a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Holder has said Texas has a "history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized."
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Susan Heavey and Eric Beech)