Obama administration blocks Texas voter ID law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Monday blocked a new law in Texas requiring voters to show photo identification before they can cast a ballot, citing a concern that it could harm Hispanic voters who lacked such documents.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a news conference in the White House Briefing Room in Washington, March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The law, which was approved in May 2011, required voters to show government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license, military identification card, birth certificate with a photo, current U.S. passport, or concealed handgun permit.

The Justice Department said that data from Texas showed that almost 11 percent of Hispanic voters, or more than 300,000, did not have a driver’s license or state-issued identification card, and that plans to mitigate those concerns were incomplete.

“Hispanic registered voters are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic registered voters to lack such identification,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the department’s civil rights division, said in a letter outlining the objection to the Texas director of elections.

Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry criticized the decision, saying he was obligated to ensure the integrity of elections.

“The DOJ has no valid reason for rejecting this important law, which requires nothing more extensive than the type of photo identification necessary to receive a library card or board an airplane,” he said in a statement.

It was the second state voter identification law blocked by the Obama administration, which earlier prevented a strict new law in South Carolina from taking effect. South Carolina then sued in federal court seeking approval of its law.

Under the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, certain states like Texas must seek approval from the Justice Department or the federal courts for changes made to state voting laws and boundaries for voting districts.

The Obama administration has already challenged the state’s attempt to re-draw congressional districts and that fight is before the courts. Texas in January also sued to get approval for its voter identification law.

Several Republican-governed states, including Texas, Kansas and Wisconsin, have adopted stricter new voter identification laws, arguing they were needed to prevent ballot box fraud. A judge in Wisconsin on Monday issued an injunction against that state’s law.

Some civil rights groups have said the new laws threatened to suppress minority voters. Democrats have also said they were aimed at squeezing out university students from the polling booths and seniors who tended to vote for Democrats.

“Photo identification requirements for voters drastically affect the electoral participation of the poor, the elderly, and the transient, which means those who need their government’s ear most will be the last to be heard,” said Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Texas state Democratic lawmaker.

The Justice Department said that potential voters in Texas would require two other identification documents to get a certificate allowing them to vote, which could lead to them paying high fees for copies of legal documents such as birth certificates.

Additionally, nearly one-third of the counties in the state do not have offices where potential voters can obtain a driver’s license or state identification card and some residents live more than 100 miles away, the Justice Department said.

Efforts to educate voters about the new identification requirements were also incomplete and the state did not submit evidence of voter impersonation not already addressed under existing state laws, the administration said.

“The state has failed to demonstrate why it could not meet its stated goals of ensuring electoral integrity and deterring ineligible voters from voting in a manner that would have voided this retrogressive effect,” Perez said.

Republicans said that the Obama administration’s decision to oppose Texas’ voter identification law smacked of politics ahead of the 2012 congressional and presidential elections.

“Today’s decision reeks of politics and appears to be an effort by the Department of Justice to carry water for the President’s reelection campaign,” said U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.

The Texas lawsuit for approval of the voter identification law is: State of Texas v. Holder in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 12-cv-128.

Editing by Eric Walsh and Paul Simao