(Refiles to fix typo in the lead)
* Court must decide if Texas can require voters to have photo ID
* Five days of arguments begin Monday in U.S. District Court
* Voting Rights Act originally passed with overwhelming bipartisan support
By Drew Singer
WASHINGTON, July 8 (Reuters) - The Voting Rights Act - a cherished safeguard for minority voters since 1965 - has been under siege for two years and this week faces one of its toughest tests on an apparent path to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Twenty-five hours of argument, starting on Monday and spread over five days, will help the judges of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia decide whether Texas can require voters to present a photo identification at the polls.
Formulated at a time of racial turmoil, the Voting Rights Act passed 77-19 in the U.S. Senate and 333-85 in the House of Representatives. The votes transcended party lines to protect black voters of all political ideals.
Ever since, it has served as the U.S. government's chief check on the fairness of election rules imposed by local governments.
While it passed with bipartisan support more than 45 years ago, a shift in political preferences along racial lines has turned the landmark piece of civil rights era legislation into a highly charged political issue.
In the 1960s, Democrats held a monopoly of voters in the Southern states. But since then, most white Southern voters have shifted allegiances to the Republican Party, while black and Hispanic voters moved further toward the left.
That shift did not fully manifest itself until congressional redistricting last year, Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Columbia Law School, wrote in a to-be-released article in the Stanford Law & Policy Review. There have been more challenges to the Voting Rights Act in the past two years than in the previous 45 years combined. Among those challenges have been a redistricting case in Alabama and Florida's purging of voter lists of non-citizens earlier this year.
"We're seeing people who previously supported the act and what it stood for are now bringing challenges to it," said Ryan Haygood, director of the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
THIS WEEK'S TRIAL
In March, the Obama administration blocked a Texas law passed in 2011 requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls, saying it was unfair to minority voters. Texas sued the U.S. government, saying its measures were fair and the Justice Department had political motives in going after the law.
"I think it's a different Department of Justice than in the past," said Patricia Harless, a Republican who sponsored the voter ID law in the Texas House of Representatives.
Harless said the Texas law was very similar to Georgia's, which the Justice Department did not block. Indiana also has a law requiring voters to have a photo ID and that will be a factor in the court's consideration of the Texas law.
Because of the lawsuit, the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., will host the first trial challenging the government's power to block a voter ID law since the Democratic Obama administration took office.
Under the blocked Texas measure, voters would be required to show photo identification such as a driver's license or passport in order to cut down on voter fraud.
Existing Texas law says voters have to show a voter registration card - which does not have a photo - or an acceptable alternative, such as a driver's license or a utility bill.
Texas says the new measure will prevent voter fraud. Testimony in committee hearings showed cases of dead people casting ballots for Obama, but estimates on the breadth of voter fraud differ dramatically.
The Justice Department counters that Hispanic voters are up to twice as likely to lack the required form of identification as their Caucasian counterparts. For them, getting a photo ID could be a headache.
Haygood represents a group of black students who want to vote in Texas but were born in other states. The new law allows handgun licenses to serve as voter identification but not student IDs.
Some of the students do not have birth certificates, and under the new law, must contact their home counties and pay for one if they want to vote, Haygood said.
Two of the three judges on the panel were appointed by Democratic presidents so it might seem unlikely the court would overturn the Obama administration.
The Texas voter ID dispute is one of dozens of challenges to the Voting Rights Act aimed not just at defending voting changes but also at getting the Supreme Court to strike down the law for good, Persily said.
The Supreme Court last considered the Voting Rights Act in 2009 in upholding Indiana law but narrowly tailored its judgment to delay ruling on the constitutionality of the entire law.
The new wave of disputes that emerged from the 2011 redistricting cycle likely will force the court to take more definitive action as soon as this spring.
The Voting Rights Act places the burden on Texas to prove that the laws do not leave minority voters in a more difficult position to vote than they were in before the new law.
AN IMPOSSIBLE POSITION
Today, party lines in the South often mirror racial lines, Persily said. Southern whites tend to support Republicans and most minorities favor Democrats.
Record minority turnouts in the 2008 presidential election have helped to make the issue a partisan one.
"Actions and interpretations that previously would not have raised partisan eyebrows are now seen as outrages," Persily wrote.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act allows the federal government to block voting rules changes in certain Southern states with a particularly heavy history of racial repression.
No matter how aggressively the Justice Department invokes that section, at least one side of today's political spectrum will be unhappy. Enforce it often and face Republican accusations of overreaching into the states' sovereignty; Enforce it rarely and face Democratic accusations of shirking minority protections; Enforce it selectively and, ironically, face accusations of playing politics.
"The Voting Rights Act wasn't designed to be enmeshed in partisan politics," Persily told Reuters, "And that's what is happening now."
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. The judicial panel is composed of Appeals Judge David Tatel, District Judge Robert Wilkins and District Judge Rosemary Collyer. (Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Howard Goller and Bill Trott)
Florida Eliminates Early Voting On Sundays
Tensions run high in Florida, a critical battleground state that passed an election law last year with several contested provisions. One bans a decade-long practice of early voting on Sundays before the election -- a window when as <a href="http://www.postonpolitics.com/2012/03/black-dems-trying-to-change-sunday-pre-election-voting-restriction/" target="_hplink">many as 30 percent</a> of black voters have previously cast ballots after attending church in a "souls to the polls" movement. Republican lawmakers claim the provision is meant to reduce election fraud, but some black Democrats say the calculation is more sinister. "It's my feeling it was done deliberately, a premeditated design, to suppress the vote of African-Americans in this country because it's playing out all over the nation in every state. It was intentional," Florida Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) said.
Photo ID Firestorm Rocks South Carolina
The Justice Department <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/23/south-carolina-voter-id-law_n_1168162.html" target="_hplink">dealt a blow </a>to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, arguing that it discriminated along racial lines. Haley's administration fired back <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/07/south-carolina-voter-id-law-lawsuit-justice-department_n_1260369.html" target="_hplink">with a lawsuit</a> that is expected to be decided in September. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said earlier this year that Republicans hope to tip the outcome of the presidential election by lowering voter turnout by 1 percent in each of nine states that have passed voter ID laws, the <a href="http://westashley.patch.com/articles/democrats-combat-voter-id-law-by-organizing#video-9786253" target="_hplink">West Ashley Patch reports</a>. "I know nothing has changed yet," he said. "But I just do not trust the judiciary that we're operating under."
Disenfranchised Grandmother Sues Pennsylvania
Under Pennsylvania's new voter ID law, voters must show a photo ID issued by the state or federal government. The state-issued IDs are free, but getting one requires a birth certificate, which costs $10 in Pennsylvania. Not everyone is having an easy time navigating the new system. Earlier this month, Viviette Applewhite, 93, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/02/pennsylvania-voter-id-law-viviette-applewhite_n_1472192.html" target="_hplink">filed a lawsuit </a>with the ACLU and NAACP challenging the law. Applewhite, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, does not have a driver's license, and the state cannot find her birth certificate. She is afraid that this year will be the first since 1960 that she will be unable to vote. Applewhite's dilemma is not uncommon. Some <a href="http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/montco_memo/142671935.html" target="_hplink">700,000 Pennsylvanians</a> lack photo ID and half of them are seniors. According to <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">the Brennan Center</a>, 25 percent of voting-age black citizens have no government-issued photo ID, compared to 8 percent of white citizens.
Kansas Moves To Accelerate Proof Of Citizenship Law
The Kansas House <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/voter-id-law-kansas-proof-of-citizenship-2012_n_1500109.html" target="_hplink">voted earlier this year</a> to move up the date a proof of citizenship law goes into effect to June 15, 2012, so it will limit who can vote in the presidential election. HuffPost's John Celock <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/voter-id-law-kansas-proof-of-citizenship-2012_n_1500109.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>: <blockquote>Rep. Ann Mah (D-Topeka) said the entire idea of proof of citizenship to vote would fail in court due to it being discriminatory against married women who change their names. Mah said that women who change their name need to provide proof of marriage and citizenship and an affidavit regarding the name change.<br> Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) took issue with Mah's claims of court challenges. "I get frustrated that everyone who does not like policy says we'll end up in court," he said.</blockquote> Only 48 percent of voting-age women with access to their birth certificates have a birth certificate with a current legal name, which means that as many as 32 million American women do not have proof of citizenship with their current legal name, <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">according to the Brennan Center</a>. The bill to change the start date <a href="http://salinapost.com/2012/05/10/kobach-concedes-kansas-voter-citizenship-plan-dead/" target="_hplink">eventually failed</a>, but will still go into effect next year.
Wisconsin Law Continues To Disenfranchise Voters After Suspension
Last year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/25/wisconsin-voter-id-law-scott-walker_n_867090.html" target="_hplink">signed a voter ID bill into law</a>, calling it a "common sense reform" that would "go a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin." As Walker's June 5 recall election approached, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wisconsin-voters-id-photo-suspension_n_1401476.html" target="_hplink">two judges suspended it on the basis that it is unconstitutional</a>. Still, poll workers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wisconsin-voters-id-photo-suspension_n_1401476.html" target="_hplink">reportedly asked some voters to show photo ID</a> during Wisconsin's April 2 primary, and one woman said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/wisconsin-voter-id-polls_n_1403864.html" target="_hplink">she and her 87-year-old mother were turned away at the polls </a>because they lacked current photo IDs -- even though they were registered to vote. "We were listed on their friggin' poll list and yet we had our names highlighted," the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/wisconsin-voter-id-polls_n_1403864.html" target="_hplink">told the <em>Milwaukee Journal Sentinel</em></a>.