WASHINGTON — A photo ID requirement for voters in Texas could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of registered Hispanics, the Justice Department declared Monday in its latest move against Republican-led voting changes in many states that have drawn protests from minorities, poor people and students.
The Justice Department objection means that now a federal court in Washington will decide whether Texas, as well as South Carolina, will be allowed to enforce its new voter photo ID requirements. The department's move merely blocked a Texas law until the court rules.
Other states have similar laws and more are moving toward them as advocates portray the restrictions as needed to combat voter fraud.
The Justice Department conveyed its objection in a letter to Texas officials that was also filed in the U.S. District Court case in Washington between Texas and the department. The department said Hispanic voters in Texas are at least 50 percent more likely and possibly more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic voters to lack a driver's license or a personal state-issued photo ID, which the Texas law requires.
The range was so broad because Texas provided two sets of registered voter data to the Justice Department. It relied on the two Texas-supplied lists for the estimates of 175,000 and 304,000 registered Hispanic Texas voters who do not have driver's licenses or state-issued IDs.
Voter ID bills were "the hottest topic of legislation in the field of elections in 2011," as legislation was introduced in 34 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Since the beginning of the 2011 legislative session, eight states have passed photo ID laws: Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Rhode Island. All but two were enacted by Republican legislatures and Republican governors.
Mississippi's law was passed by voter referendum placed on the ballot by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. Rhode Island's law was enacted by a Democratic legislature and an independent governor.
This year, the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly and Senate passed a voter ID measure, which Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is expected to sign. In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled House debated a photo ID measure on Monday; if it is approved, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign it.
The new photo ID requirements have become a point of contention in the 2012 elections. Liberal groups say the push for these requirements is led by Republicans aiming to disenfranchise people who tend to vote Democratic — African-Americans, Hispanics, the poor and college students.
For the past three months, Attorney General Eric Holder has been especially vocal about voting rights. "We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence — and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country," the attorney general said recently in a speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.
Proponents of such legislation say the measures are needed to combat voter fraud. But advocacy groups for minorities and the poor argue there is no significant voter fraud.
Hans von Spakovsky, who headed the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Republican administration of George W. Bush, has said one reason there is scant evidence of voter fraud is no one checks ID at the polls. "Nobody's saying it's large scale," but fraud could make a difference in close races, said von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Of the Texas law, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, wrote the Texas secretary of state: "I cannot conclude that the state has sustained its burden" of showing that the newly enacted law has neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect.
The Justice Department letter said that cost, travel distance and limited hours of operation for state offices will make it difficult for people to get state-issued photo ID cards. The letter said that if an applicant does not have the correct document to get a state-issued photo ID, the least expensive option would be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter's birth certificate.
Some of the photo ID measures have been similar to a model bill circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization whose corporate sponsors include Koch Industries, a privately held oil refining and pipeline conglomerate run by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. They are major contributors to Republican campaigns.
The department had been reviewing the Texas law and discussing it with state officials since last year. In January, Texas officials sued Holder, seeking a court ruling that the state's recently enacted voter ID law was not discriminatory in purpose or effect.
As a state with a history of voter discrimination, Texas is required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to get advance approval of voting changes from either the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington.
In December, the Justice Department rejected South Carolina's voter ID law on grounds it makes it harder for minorities to cast ballots. It was the first voter ID law to be rejected by the department in nearly 20 years.
In response, South Carolina sued Holder; the state argued that its new law will not disenfranchise any voters.
Like South Carolina and Texas, Alabama and Mississippi are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, so they will have to obtain approval from the Justice Department or the federal court here before their photo ID requirements can go in effect.
The Justice Department has said it is reviewing voter ID laws in other states not covered by Section 5, but the department has not identified them.
Last week in Wisconsin, a county judge imposed a temporary injunction suspending that state's photo ID requirement. Rhode Island's new photo ID requirement will not take effect until 2014.
The Justice Department most likely will take undertake a broader, more aggressive review over the next several months, said Jamie Chandler, a political science professor and election expert at Hunter College.
The department's Texas letter drew familiar reactions from politicians and activists.
"Voter fraud undermines the electoral process and can sway the ultimate outcome of elections," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "This is an abuse of executive authority and an affront to the citizens of Texas. It's time for the Obama administration to learn not to mess with Texas."
Texas's voter ID law "would prevent countless Latinos, African-Americans, elderly citizens and others from casting their ballot," said Katie O'Connor, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's voting rights project. "We're pleased the Department of Justice has recognized the harms this discriminatory law would have on people's fundamental right to vote."