By Tim Eaton, Austin American-Statesman
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, joining several civil rights groups, told a federal judge Tuesday in South Texas that the Texas voter identification law violates the Voting Rights Act by harming blacks’ and Latinos’ ability to participate in the electoral process.
Countering, lawyers from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office dismissed the groups’ charges and called the voter ID law a common-sense measure designed to fight election fraud.
Both sides presented opening statements Tuesday in a trial that could be a test case for other states’ voter ID laws. Plaintiffs’ lawyers dominated time in court because there are several plaintiff groups.
The Texas voter ID law was passed in 2011 and has been in effect since 2013. But the Justice Department under President Barack Obama and the other plaintiffs have sued the state to take the law off the books. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos might not rule before Election Day in November, so 13.6 million registered voters in Texas likely will need to produce valid photo IDs to cast ballots for Texas governor and other races.
Elizabeth Westfall, a lawyer from the Justice Department, told the Corpus Christi judge that the state’s voter ID law, which began as Senate Bill 14 in the 2011 legislative session, was drafted with a “discriminatory purpose” and that the legislation’s supporters set out to limit the minority vote.
The authors consistently rejected ways to make the bill nondiscriminatory by denying opponents’ attempts to create easier access to valid forms of identification, she said.
Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer representing the Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said he would show how the law favors whites.
Rosenberg said one form of allowable ID — a concealed handgun license — is more likely to be held by whites, while student IDs — which aren’t considered acceptable to cast ballots — are more likely to be the only form of ID for minorities.
He also said he planned to call a witness — Austin elections lawyer Buck Wood — to testify that voter impersonation is “virtually nonexistent,” despite claims by Abbott and Republicans in the Legislature.
Jose Garza, an attorney from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said, given the state’s explosive Latino growth, GOP lawmakers were faced with a choice in 2011: reach out to Latino voters or make a self-serving political decision.
“The state chose voter suppression,” he said.
Lawyers with the Texas attorney general’s office called the 2011 law a “common-sense requirement” for voters “to prove who they say they are.”
Reed Clay, a state lawyer, told the judge that the Texas voter ID law is no more burdensome than having to show an ID to board an airplane or open a bank account.
Clay also reiterated that the law was intended to prevent voter fraud and to protect the integrity of the election process.
The plaintiffs never have adequately proved that would-be voters who lack ID are minorities, Clay said. Plus, plaintiffs have had “intense difficulty” finding examples of people who have been disenfranchised by the law, he said.
Clay also said that Texas’ law was fashioned after an Indiana statute that was deemed acceptable by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Quoting the justices’ opinion in Crawford v. Marion County, Clay said that provisional ballots — which are allowed in the Indiana and Texas laws — “provide an adequate remedy” for voters who don’t have a valid form of ID.
Additionally, the Supreme Court said that a trip to a driver’s license office in Indiana “surely doesn’t qualify as a substantial burden or even represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting,” he said.
Clay said the plaintiffs won’t be able to prove discrimination, and the Texas law hasn’t been shown to have a negative effect on voter turnout.
And, after what he called a “fishing expedition” with an unprecedented level of discovery by the Justice Department and the civil rights groups, Clay concluded, “The plaintiffs return to this courtroom with empty nets.”
After the opening statements, plaintiffs offered testimony from a couple of people who said they haven’t been able to vote because of the law.
In video testimony, Sammie Louise Bates, an elderly black woman from Round Rock, said she didn’t have any of the seven required forms of identification and wasn’t able to vote.
Calvin Gerard Carrier, a black originally from the Southeast Texas town of China, testified that his 83-year-old father had been denied the right to vote for not having a valid form of ID. He only had an expired driver’s license and a Veterans Administration card, Carrier said.
“He stated to me that he couldn’t believe that after serving his country in the war, all the Social Security he has paid, working his entire life that he’d be denied the right to vote because of a simple card,” Carrier said.
The case, which is scheduled to last two weeks, is expected to be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ultimately, it could be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photo: Bill & Heather Jones via Flickr