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Texas Voter ID Law Goes To Trial As Justice Department Challenges Measure

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WASHINGTON -- The state of Texas and the Justice Department gave opening statements Monday in a trial over Texas' new voter ID law, setting the stage for a legal battle over the federal Voting Rights Act.

At issue is a 2011 law passed by Texas' GOP-dominated Legislature that requires voters to show photo identification when they head to the polls. The state argued Monday that the law represents the will of the people and does not run afoul of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to ensure minorities' right to vote.

"Texas Democrats, like their national counterparts, have been wholly out of step with their constituents," said Adam Mortara, a lawyer representing Texas. "Voters want photo ID."

Mortara said the state's new statute is in line with similar laws that have cleared legal challenges in Indiana and Georgia. He also said the Justice Department would not be able to prove that any voters – and particularly minority voters – would be hindered by the law.

"It's really quite difficult to find anyone who's registered to vote who doesn't already have a photo ID," he said during Texas' opening statement.

Lawyers for the Justice Department strongly disputed Texas' view.

Elizabeth Westfall, in her opening for the Justice Department, said the evidence would show as many as 1.4 million voters lack any form of acceptable identification under Texas' new law. She also stressed Texas wouldn't be able to prove there was no intent to discriminate against minority voters when it passed the law.

"Texas will be unable to meet its burden," she said.

Westfall noted the law was passed in the Texas Legislature under "the uniform objection" of minority lawmakers and that the Justice Department would show evidence it does in fact discriminate against minority voters.

"We look forward to explaining the flaws in the state's argument," she said.

The opening statements set up a case that will test the limits of the Voting Rights Act. The Obama administration blocked Texas' voter ID law in March, citing the Act. Texas, in turn, filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department sending the case to federal court in Washington.

A three-judge panel will decide whether Texas' law passes legal muster. The trial is expected to last five days.

Testimony from witnesses began immediately after opening statements, with Texas calling Brian Keith Ingram, an official with the Texas Secretary of State's Office. Ingram told the court he knew of at least four verified instances when someone voted who had recently passed away according to records and said there could be as many as 239 such instances.

"It's more common than we thought, and it is troubling," he said.

Under cross examination, Ingram said that there's a possibility some of those instances are the result of clerical errors.

The trial marks the second time in months that Texas and the Justice Department have argued in Washington over the Voting Rights Act. In January, the two sides spent two weeks arguing in front of a similar three-judge panel about Texas' redrawn congressional maps. No final decision has been made in that case, but a federal court has approved interim maps that have allowed Texas elections to go ahead.

Many of the key players in that case have returned for this one. As in January, Mortara is serving as one of Texas' lead attorneys and several Justice Department lawyers who worked on that trial are working on this one. One of the judges in this week's trial, Rosemary Collyer, appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, is also involved in both cases.

The other judges hearing the voter ID case are David Tatel, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and Robert Wilkins, appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

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