CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The fate of Texas' tough voter ID law moved into the hands of a federal judge Monday, following a trial that the U.S. Justice Department said exposed another chapter in the state's troubling history of discrimination in elections.
State attorneys defending the law signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 urged the judge to follow other courts by upholding photo identification requirements. The most recent such case came this month when a federal appeals panel reinstated Wisconsin's law in time for Election Day.
Whether Texas will also get a ruling before then is unclear. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ended the two-week trial in Corpus Christi without signaling when she'll make a decision, meaning that as of now, an estimated 13.6 million registered Texas voters will need a photo ID to cast a ballot in November.
The U.S. Justice Department, which is fighting the law, began closing arguments by flashing onto a projection screen how many eligible voters it says lack an acceptable form of ID: 608,470, a revised lower number than what the DOJ and other law opponents said when the trial began. It also argued that black residents in Texas are four times as likely not to have an ID as white residents, with Hispanics being three times as likely not to have an ID. Both minority groups are traditionally Democratic voters.
"It imposes punishing costs. The burden is far beyond what is usual to vote, and under the circumstances, unsupportable," said Richard Dellheim, a Justice Department attorney.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took the unusual step of bringing the weight of his federal office into Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the heart of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which blocked Texas and eight other states with histories of discrimination from changing their election laws without approval from the DOJ or a federal court. Prior to that landmark ruling, Texas had been barred from enforcing voter ID.
The ruling freed those states from the federal oversight, but Holder still dragged Texas back into court to challenge the voter ID law under a remaining — but weaker — section of the Voting Rights Act. Known as Section 2, the provision requires that opponents meet a far higher threshold and prove that Texas intentionally discriminated against minority voters.
The office of Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is favored to win the race to replace Perry as governor next year, said law opponents didn't clear that hurdle.
Several minority voters testified during the trial, including a black retired grandmother who grew up in the segregationist era of poll taxes who described hurdles to voting since the Texas law took effect last year. The voter ID law, however, "will not prevent from voting a single one of the 17 voters who testified," said Adam Aston, Texas' deputy solicitor general.
Nineteen states have laws that require voters to show photo identification at the polls, and Texas is among four states where legal fights are pending over the issue, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But opponents view Texas' law as the toughest. Georgia, another Republican stronghold, also recently passed a voter ID law, but the Justice Department portrayed that state's framework as reasonable in comparison. But unlike in Georgia, Texas' list of acceptable forms of ID doesn't include college IDs, but it does permit concealed handgun licenses.
The Justice Department also accused the Texas of intentionally skimping on voter outreach after the law was passed. The state deployed mobile voter card units after the law took effect, but those were on the ground for only 11 days. Texas has issued fewer than 300 free voter IDs since the law took effect, according to opponents. Georgia, meanwhile, has issued 2,200 voter IDs under a similar but more robust program.
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