WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government sued on Thursday to keep Texas from carrying out a voter identification requirement enacted in 2011, setting up a new battle between the Obama administration and a state that is a conservative stronghold.
The Justice Department said in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi that Texas state lawmakers passed the requirement to deny racial minorities the right to vote and, unlike other states with similar laws, failed to take steps to prevent the law from being discriminatory.
A federal court in Washington blocked the Texas law in August 2012, but its ruling was undone in June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Separately, the Justice Department filed a motion to intervene as a plaintiff in a Texas redistricting lawsuit brought on behalf of minority voters.
Voter ID laws - which require government-issued identification before voting - have become a political and racial flashpoint across the country. Democrats generally oppose the measures and many Republicans back them.
Supporters say they are needed to deter people from illegally casting ballots, while opponents say voter fraud is exaggerated in order to mask purposeful suppression of Democratic constituencies.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, called the Justice Department suit “gutter politics” and “offensive to the overwhelming majority of Texans of all races who support this ballot integrity measure.” He has said he will defend the state’s voter ID law and redistricting plans in court.
In its ruling a year ago, the federal court in Washington said Texas failed to ensure that voters could obtain ID cards free of charge, noting that people would have to pay to obtain a certified copy of their birth certificate or other proof of their ID and travel to a state office to present it.
Critics argue that such conditions effectively deny voting rights to people without means.
The courts and the Justice Department have allowed voter ID laws in states that guaranteed that voters would face no additional costs as a result of the laws.
Voting rights lawyers have said they expect the Justice Department to sue other jurisdictions, possibly North Carolina over its new voter ID law, as it looks for ways to protect minority voters.
Without naming any states, Holder, an appointee of President Barack Obama, said that the Texas lawsuit “represents the department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”
Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller, Vicki Allen, Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman