By TODD J. GILLMAN and GROMER JEFFERS JR, Dallas News
The Justice Department ramped up efforts Thursday to reimpose oversight of Texas elections, suing to block a stringent voter ID law and weighing in on a fight over redrawn political maps.
“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,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement.”
Democrats and minority advocates welcomed the muscular assertion of legal authority. But Texas leaders, all Republicans, cried foul.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a frequent Obama antagonist and a leading GOP contender for governor next year, said Holder was playing politics by asking a Corpus Christi court to block the requirement for voters to show photo identification at the polls.
“Voter IDs have nothing to do with race and they are free to anyone who needs one,” said Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor. “Eric Holder’s outrageous claim that voter ID is a racist plot to disenfranchise minority voters is gutter politics and is offensive to the overwhelming majority of Texans of all races who support this ballot integrity measure.”
Gov. Rick Perry also blasted the “effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas” and the intrusion on state sovereignty.
The legal moves include an effort to re-establish federal preclearance over Texas election procedures. Together, they ensure that Texas will be the epicenter of the fight over voting rights and regulations, after the Supreme Court ruled in June that decades of federal scrutiny in states with a history of bias couldn’t continue without substantial changes.
Democrats cheered Washington’s intervention. They argued that Abbott forced the administration’s hand by insisting on enforcing a law deemed discriminatory a year ago in federal court.
“They started the fire and that’s where the fire department has to show up,” said Matt Angle, a top Texas strategist for the party. “The Department of Justice has no choice but to act.”
On June 27, a divided Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case from Shelby County, Ala., that freed Texas and eight other states from having to seek federal OK for any election rule changes. The ruling tossed out the formula Congress had long used to identify states with a record of bias severe enough to justify intervention.
Within hours, Abbott declared that Texas’ voter ID law, passed in 2011 but never enforced because of legal challenges, would take effect right away.
The next day, freshman U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and seven other black and Hispanic plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit in Corpus Christi to block the law.
The Justice Department filed its suit Thursday in the same court.
Veasey predicted that the cases would not only “set the course here in Texas, but nationwide for the protection of voting rights for all Americans.”
Texas Republicans noted that Holder had taken no issue with other voter ID laws in Democratic states. They also questioned why he was challenging anew the 2011 redistricting maps. Those districts were never used in an election, and different lines have since been approved by a court.
“Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas, and a lame-duck administration trying to turn our state blue,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader.
Sen. Ted Cruz accused Holder of trying to “undermine the integrity of our elections.”
Holder has said that he would use the previously obscure Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act to seek court-ordered resumption of federal oversight. He cited a “history of pervasive voting-related discrimination” in Texas. Texas officials called it an “end run” around the Supreme Court.
Thursday’s filing puts Holder’s promise into action.
Justice Department officials contend the voter ID law won’t only deter minority voters; it was, they say, intended to do so. State officials strongly deny that.
But in a ruling issued one year ago, Judge David Tatel wrote that evidence presented at the trial showed the law “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”
The GOP-run Legislature could have blunted that impact. But lawmakers refused to waive fees for poor Texans. Nor would they require night and weekend hours at driver’s license offices.
The court also noted that even if the law looks race-neutral, so did poll taxes, literacy tests and other evils that prompted Congress to adopt the Voting Rights Act.
“The court said it wasn’t even a close call,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who testified against the state at trial.
The Supreme Court vacated that lower court decision after the ruling in Shelby.
But the findings of fact could still influence the Corpus Christi court, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. He called Holder’s moves Thursday an effort to put teeth into the vow to keep voter protection alive.
“They’re trying to piece together the best they can do with the tools they have, and what’s left of the Voting Rights Act,” Tobias said.
Taxpayers in Dallas and across Texas are effectively financing both sides of the fight.
The Dallas County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 on Tuesday to join Veasey’s lawsuit to block the voter ID law. Local Democratic leaders estimate that 220,000 voters in Dallas County alone lack a photo ID required under the law.
In Arizona, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, was meeting with other members of the Democratic National Committee when word arrived of the Justice Department’s move. They were pleased.
“It sends a message that the administration is not going to back off on the issue of voting rights,” he said.
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