Unless a federal judge intervenes, the South Texas city of Edinburg could be the first to enforce a new voter ID law next week, and lawyers will likely use the special election to gather evidence to strengthen lawsuits to block it in the future.
While the U.S. Justice Department and several civil rights groups have filed federal lawsuits to block the requirement that voters produce a state-issued photo ID, no one as of Friday had asked for a restraining order to stop enforcement of the law. That means it will be in effect when early voting in the city's special election begins Wednesday.
Allowing Texas to enforce the law could be part of a larger legal strategy to defeat it in the long run.
Texas has been the center of the fight over voting laws after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Congress must update how it enforces the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Texas is the only state in the last three years where a federal judge has ruled the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities.
Federal judges in Corpus Christi are hearing two cases opposing Texas' voter ID law: One filed in June by Democratic U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP and Dallas County and a new one filed Thursday by the Justice Department. Both cases will likely be combined by Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, an Obama administration appointee.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott insists there is nothing wrong with the voter ID law and says enforcing it is critical to preventing fraud in upcoming elections. He also points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may require a photo ID to vote.
Opponents, though, say that's only if the requirement doesn't make it too difficult for people, particularly minorities, to cast ballots.
Those who brought the lawsuits argue Texas is doing just that by requiring state-issued ID cards. In the past, Texas law has allowed people to vote after showing their voter registration card or state, federal, city and college IDs.
The Justice Department points out that a state-issued ID can only be obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many counties don't have a DMV office, or it is only open one or two days a week and never on weekends or after 6 p.m.
The complaint adds that to get a free Election Identification Card, a person must pay either $22 for a certified copy of their birth certificate or $345 for a copy of naturalization and citizenship papers. State data also shows that Hispanic and African-American citizens are more likely not to possess a state-issued ID.
Lastly, the Justice Department lawsuit said, there was the process the Republican-controlled Legislature used to adopt the law.
"The Legislature and governor implemented a series of unusual procedures including designating (the voter ID bill) as emergency legislation, which enabled the Senate to consider the bill on an expedited schedule," court papers say. Lt. Gov David Dewhurst also amended the rules to exempt the bill from needing a two-thirds majority and Speaker Joe Straus created a special committee to consider the bill.
On Thursday Abbott dismissed the new lawsuit as political gamesmanship intended to help Texas Democrats.
"This voter disenfranchisement argument is nothing but a myth," he said. "Almost every single person either has a valid photo ID ... or it is very easy to get one."
That's where the Edinburg election could help the case against the voter ID law. Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the burden is on civil rights groups to gather evidence that the law disproportionately prevents minorities from voting.
"Edinburg does provide one opportunity," he said, adding that he's developing statistical models to determine the impact of the law. If the civil rights groups can gather enough material, they'll try to get an injunction before the next statewide election in November.
Garza advises those who are registered to vote to go to the polls even if they don't have an ID, noting that the law allows for exceptions and provisional ballots.
Abbott has called Garza's recommendation unethical. But many civil rights attorneys have started lawsuits by testing how a new law is applied.