WASHINGTON — Lawyers for the state of Texas argued Friday that a contentious voter ID law should go forward because it doesn't limit minorities' right to vote and, therefore, does not violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
Justice Department attorneys argued just the opposite, saying the law requiring voters to show valid, government-issued photo identification at the polls is exactly the type of statute that the act, passed in 1965, was designed to prevent.
Both sides gave closing arguments Friday after a weeklong trial about the Texas law, passed last year by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature. Texas currently only requires voters to show their voter registration cards, which do not have photos, or another acceptable alternative form of ID such as a driver's license or utility bill.
Texas' voter ID law is similar to laws passed by GOP-controlled legislatures in Georgia and Indiana.
The Justice Department blocked the Texas law in March, citing the Voting Rights Act. Texas sued the Justice Department, sending the case to federal court in Washington. A three-judge panel is set to decide the fate of the law.
It's not clear when the judges will make a ruling. The presiding judge, Rosemary Collyer, said they would try to have a decision in "quick order." The judges have said they would like to rule before November's elections.
Attorney John Hughes, who argued for Texas, said the state had met its burden, showing through expert witnesses, social science studies and its own dissection of the Justice Department's evidence that there was little cause to believe any eligible voter would be unable to vote because of the ID law.
"People who want to vote already have ID or an ability to get it," Hughes said.
He said if the Justice Department's argument that thousands would be disenfranchised by the Texas law were valid, the courtroom would have been full of witnesses testifying in support of that point.
Hughes also reiterated other arguments Texas had made throughout the week: that public opinion backs voter ID laws, that Texas lawmakers had the integrity of votes – not the suppression of minority voters on their mind – when they passed the law, and that other states that have passed ID laws have not seen a drop in turnout.
The three judges hearing the case seemed skeptical of Hughes' arguments, interrupting him repeatedly with questions. Judge Robert Wilkins asked Hughes how Texas could require some rural voters to drive more than 100 miles to get a new voter ID card when under current law a person cannot be required to travel more than 100 miles for a subpoena.
Matthew Colangelo, in the Justice Department's closing argument, said Texas' law should be thrown out under the Voting Rights Act because of a number of factors, including the atmosphere in which the law was passed, statistical evidence about its effects and the fact that it creates new barriers to voting.
"It's exactly the kind of law Congress had in mind when it passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965," he said of the act, which was passed as a safeguard on minority voting rights.
Colangelo noted that the ID law in Texas was passed against a backdrop of "tremendous population growth" in the state's Hispanic community. Texas added 4 million people to its population between 2000 and 2010, he said, and 90 percent of them were Hispanics.
"Texas has acted to take away Latino voting strength as it's on the verge of growing" he said.
Colangelo cited testimony that Democrats in the Texas Legislature gave earlier in the week. They said normal rules were suspended to speed along the voter ID bill.
He also argued that the law simply made it more difficult for people to vote, calling it "a new barrier that will disenfranchise."
The judges also interrupted Colangelo at times during his closing argument, pressing him to clarify his points. But they didn't ask him as many questions as they did Hughes.
Closing arguments also came Friday from lawyers for several intervening groups who have joined the Justice Department in opposition to Texas' law. One of the attorneys, Gerald Hebert, said the law would hurt the poor. He referred to it as "merely a pretext, a cloak for voter suppression."
"It will harm the poor, the downtrodden, the destitute," he said. "How mean-spirited, how callous can you be?"