Lawyers for the state of Texas today began presenting evidence in Washington to convince a special three-judge panel to approve the state's intent to require registered voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Texas sued the U.S. Justice Department in Washington's federal district court in January, seeking a declaration from the court to allow the state to implement a photo ID law that critics call one of the most restrictive in the country. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has made fighting voter discrimination a hallmark of the department's Civil Rights Division.
Texas has the burden at trial to prove that its voter ID bill, signed into law last year, does not have the purpose or effect to deny a minority citizen the right to vote. The vast majority of registered voters already have a photo ID, an attorney for Texas, Adam Mortara, told the judicial special panel today.
"This is a case about Texas' proposed implementation of one of the most popular voting reforms of the last 20 years, a common-sense requirement that when you show up to polls to vote, you prove you are who you say you are with a photo ID," said Adam Mortara of Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott.
Mortara said showing a photo ID is part of routine life, from getting into a federal courthouse to riding on an airplane. He said the evidence at trial, which is expected to last a week, will show that the state's voter ID initiative is not discriminatory.
The DOJ's evidence, Mortara said in his opening statement, is flawed and cannot be used to block the state from carrying out its identification law. Mortara in particular critiqued the work of Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University who found Hispanics and blacks in Texas are disproportionately lacking identification compared to white voters.
A DOJ lawyer, Elizabeth Westfall of the department's Civil Rights Division, said in court today that Texas "is unable to meet its burden" that the voter ID law will not have a retrogressive effect. Ansolabehere, Westfall said today, determined that at least 1.4 million registered voters lack any form of state-issued ID that is accepted under the law.
"In fact, minority registered voters in Texas are two-thirds more likely than white registered voters to lack an allowable state ID," Westfall said. That disparity exists among recent voters and all registrants, she said.
Westfall said the department also will rely on the research of historian Morgan Kousser of the California Institute of Technology to argue that Texas lawmakers were motivated, at least in part, by a racially discriminatory purpose in passing the voter ID law.
Ezra Rosenberg, a Dechert partner representing the Texas NAACP, told the panel today in a brief opening remark that the state's voter ID law "was a solution looking for a problem."
David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is hearing the dispute with U.S. District Court judges Rosemary Collyer and Robert Wilkins.
The Justice Department under Holder has ramped up civil rights initiatives, blocking or suing over voter ID laws. The Texas case is the first such suit to go to trial.
Holder on Saturday said in a speech that the department "in response to a number of proposed changes that could make it more difficult for many eligible voters to cast their ballots" initiated a review of redistricting plans and photo identification requirements.
"In each of the jurisdictions where proposed changes can be shown to have no discriminatory purpose or effect, we’ll follow the law and approve the change," the attorney general said. "Where jurisdictions cannot meet this threshold, we will object—under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other laws—in order to guarantee that all eligible citizens have unrestricted access to the ballot box."
Holder is expected on Tuesday afternoon to deliver remarks at the the NAACP National Convention, in Houston.