Last week the Justice Department blocked a South Carolina law that would require voters to produce photo identification at the polls. Now a similar Texas voter ID law could very well be next to face a legal challenge.
Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas numbers among a few states, including South Carolina, that must have federal approval of any changes to its election laws because of its history of racial discrimination.
"The Texas attorney general's office is prepared to take all necessary legal action to defend the voter ID law enacted by the Texas Legislature," Texas AG spokeswoman Lauren Bean told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the organization's senior vice president for advocacy and policy, said he expects the Texas law to be blocked as well.
"Our hope is that we see the same thing happening with Texas," Shelton told The Huffington Post's Black Voices on Wednesday afternoon. "These very nasty, very strong photo ID laws have a desperate impact on racial minorities and other communities."
The Texas law is very similar to the South Carolina law, Shelton said, and because of the requirement placed upon the state to get approval for election law changes, he believes it is all the more likely that the Justice Department will block it, as the department did in South Carolina.
"Having the Justice Department come in as an impartial third party and actually do the kind of analysis that it did, and its thorough assessment of the law and a thorough investigation into its possible impact; and to come out with what it did says an awful lot," Shelton said.
The Justice Department's decision was a rare victory for those fighting to stop what has been described as an effort to suppress turnout among minority voters and other groups that have historically supported Democrats. But the government's intervention in South Carolina may also serve as a goad to those who support such laws. Proponents of voter ID laws say the measures are needed to protect against voter fraud.
Both sides seem poised for a prolonged legal fight, with South Carolina as the first battleground. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has vowed to take the case to federal court, if need be.
Gov. Nikki Haley denounced the decision as an act of political "bullying."
"It is outrageous," she said in reported statements. "We plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned."
More than a dozen states have passed tough new voting restriction laws this year. Eight of those states, including Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, require photo identification. A handful of these laws -- including the Texas law signed this summer by Gov. Rick Perry -- are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.
In Texas, voters can present a gun permit but not college-issued identification.
The fight thus far has split along partisan lines, the debate tinged with elements of age, race and class. According to Democrats, about 25 percent of African Americans and 19 percent of Latinos do not have any form of government-issued identification. And the poor and many older Americans, reports suggest, are less able to pay various fees connected with acquiring the identification that would be required under many of the new laws.
A number of minority and labor groups, including the NAACP, the United Federation of Teachers, the health care workers' union 1199SEIU, the National Council of La Raza, the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund and others have joined forces and continue to hold protests and rallies around the country.
Democrats have also launched an offensive of their own, much of it couched in a recently released report, "A Reversal in Progress: Restricting Voting Rights for Electoral Gain," and the launch of a website www.protectingthevote.org.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently gave a speech in Austin, Texas, in which he urged political parties "to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success."
"Over the years, we've seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls -- from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot," Holder said during the Dec. 13 speech.
The debate has spread to the blogosphere and to the cable news shows.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, veteran activist and host of "Politics Nation" on MSNBC, said during a recent interview with The Huffington Post that the most important issues facing blacks today are jobs and the fight over the voter ID laws.
"Jobs, because people need to be able to feed their families," he said. "Voter ID, because we need to be able to keep people empowered."
Republicans have said the laws are necessary to protect against voter fraud, while Democrats contend that such fraud is extremely rare. Meanwhile, across the country, stories are emerging of citizens, many of them elderly and African American, being denied the required identification that would make them eligible to vote.
It has allegedly happened twice in Tennessee alone, including a 96-year-old woman who could not locate her marriage license, and a 93-year-old woman who had cleaned the state Capitol there for some 30 years. The latter woman, Thelma Johnson, was born in Alabama via midwife and was never issued a birth certificate, according to a report on the website thinkprogress.org.
Melissa Cubria, an advocate with the Texas Public Interest Research Group, which opposes the laws, told The Huffington Post Wednesday that the fight in Texas over the voter ID laws has become an "over my dead body" issue.
"There's the usual partisan bickering back and forth, but it's almost a wait-and-see attitude for people who are very encouraged by the Justice Department's ruling [in South Carolina]," Cubria said. "However, it ultimately could be some time before the court makes a decision if this goes to court in Texas. So people are balancing their optimism with caution."
The issue was a cornerstone for Texas Republicans in the 2010 elections, she said. When Republicans gained a super-majority in the state legislature, the law's passage became a near certainty.
"Voting is one of our most basic, fundamental rights as Americans, and we should be doing everything we can to make it easier to vote, not putting up barriers and wasting taxpayer dollars fighting these battles in court," Cubria said.
Lenny McAllister, a conservative talk-show host and a regular on cable news shows, called the Justice Department's decision "political social engineering," and explained to HuffPost that to suggest the laws disenfranchise minorities is "offensive" to blacks.
"There really isn't an excuse in 2011 for black Americans to be so detached from the American mainstream that we are arguing over having photo IDs," said McAllister, who is black. "Didn't our people die, didn't our people get killed, lynched and castrated for us to not have to have these arguments?"
Those who fought and died to enfranchise blacks are "rolling in their graves," McAllister said. "It is an ignorant argument for us as black Americans to even have."
He, like many other supporters of the laws, argue that so many routine transactions, from purchasing an airline ticket to renting a movie, require photo identification, that making it a requirement to vote is not an undue burden. McAllister said that America is suffering from an "illegal immigration" problem and that many cities serve as sanctuaries for immigrants. His fear is that many of these "illegal" immigrants will infiltrate the voting booths using little more than utility bills.
"We have to ensure that our elections mean what they say and say what they mean," he said. "We can't give [non-Americans] the opportunity to impact America without being American citizens. That's just wrong."
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