Justice Department seeks to overturn Texas voter ID law

The Justice Department on Thursday sued to stop Texas from implementing a strict new voter identification law and also joined a challenge to the state’s redistricting plan, in the latest, but by no means final, fallout from an incendiary Supreme Court ruling.

Acting in two separate Texas-based federal courts, Justice Department officials say their double-barreled legal blast powered by with what remains of the Voting Rights Act will combat discrimination. The Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the 1965 voting law in June, prompting Texas and other states to quickly adopt measures that critics consider insidious or discriminatory.

“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Attorney General Eric Holder declared in a statement.The legal actions against Texas mark the first of their kind since the court’s hotly debated 5-4 decision. More federal legal actions are likely in coming days or weeks, as other states such as North Carolina have similarly adopted controversial new voting laws.

“We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement,” Holder said, adding that the Texas lawsuits “will not be our last.”

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn countered that the lawsuits were the acts of a “politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas.”

“We deserve the freedom to make our own laws, and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points,” Cornyn said.

In a statement, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, likewise, dismissed the federal action as “endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas.”

The Voting Rights Act around which the fighting is taking place exists in a weakened form since the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision in a case arising from Shelby County, Ala.

Under Section 5 of the law, designated states and jurisdictions require Justice Department approval before they change any voting practice or procedure. Called preclearance, this can cover everything from buying new voting machines and mandating photo identification to shifting district boundaries

Nine states currently are covered in their entirety by the preclearance requirements: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Selected jurisdictions in an additional seven states also are covered, including parts of California, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.

Technically, the Supreme Court left the Section 5 preclearance requirements alone in its June decision. Practically speaking, though, the majority decision gutted it, as the court struck down the formula for determining which states are covered by preclearance.

“There is no denying that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.

Unless a badly divided Congress rewrites the coverage formula, preclearance is effectively a dead letter.

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared the state would immediately put into practice the voter ID program put on hold by federal judges.

The Texas law requires adults to present government-issued photo identification prior to voting. Student ID cards don’t count, but concealed handgun licenses do. Those lacking the requisite identification can receive provisional ballots, though critics say the net result would be diminished minority voter turnout. The federal lawsuit challenging the state law was to be filed in the Southern District of Texas, which encompasses cities including Houston and Corpus Christi.

“The voter ID law in Texas is a solution in search of a problem,” stated Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “A Texas voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than to see someone attempt to vote fraudulently at the polls.”

Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, added that he was “confident that the overwhelming evidence demonstrating intentional discrimination in Texas, when presented in court, will compel state officials to remove barriers to voting.”

As part of the lawsuit, the Justice Department wants a judge to order Texas to once again submit all of its future electoral changes to preclearance.

The Texas redistricting plan crafted in 2011 carves out state House seats as well as 36 congressional districts, four of them new to account for population growth. As drawn by state legislators, three of the four new districts would be dominated by Republicans.

But critics say the new map shortchanges minority voters. The Justice Department is formally seeking to join a lawsuit already filed in the Western District of Texas, which encompasses cities including Austin and El Paso.

Maria Recio of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.