A federal judge on Tuesday began reviewing tough new Texas voter ID rules challenged by the Obama administration in a trial that could threaten the polarizing law, although a decision isn't expected before the November election.
Minority rights groups, voters and Democratic lawmakers are among a coalition of plaintiffs suing Texas, and they say their experts have estimated 787,000 registered voters lacking any of seven acceptable forms of ID to cast a ballot under the law. They say blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate slice of those voters.
Texas is the first test by the Justice Department to wring protections from a weaker Voting Rights Act after the U.S. Supreme Court last year gutted the heart of the landmark 1965 civil rights law.
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In two Texas elections since that ruling, voters have been required to show an approved ID.
Lawyers for Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the favorite to become governor in January, told a judge that both took place without glitches or disenfranchising voters.
"This requirement is one that Americans comply with every day to engage in mundane activities like cashing a check, opening a bank account or boarding a plane," said Reed Clay, a special assistant under Abbott.
The trial in front of U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi is expected to last two weeks, but a ruling isn't expected until after Election Day. That means roughly 13.6 million registered voters in Texas would still need to produce a photo ID this fall.
Conservative states have rushed to pass voter ID restrictions in recent years, and similar lawsuits are ongoing in Wisconsin and North Carolina. Measures in Georgia and Indiana have survived challenges.
But the office of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Texas law stands out as especially stringent and racially motivated.
Unlike other states with voter ID restrictions, Texas doesn't recognize university IDs from college students at polling places, but does accept concealed handgun licenses as proof of identity. Free voting IDs are available from the state, but opponents say getting those cards still put underlying financial costs on voters, such as paying for birth certificate copies and travel.
"The U.S. will show that (the law) interacts with social and historical conditions in Texas to cause inequality," said Elizabeth Westfall, an attorney in the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed the voter ID law in 2011. It was blocked after a court ruled that it would disproportionately affect the poor and minorities, a finding that came under a review mandated by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 required nine mostly southern states with a history of discrimination to seek approval from either the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court, before changing election laws. But after the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 last summer, Texas was free to implement voter ID.
The Justice Department argues that the law still runs afoul of the Voting Rights Act but now faces the higher threshold of proving intentional discrimination to prevail in court.
Clay said opponents came up empty despite volumes of evidence and hours of depositions. He also contested the number of Texas registered voters who don't have an acceptable form of ID, citing flaws in the state's voter rolls.
Between 2000 and 2010, nearly 9 out of 10 new residents in fast-booming Texas were minorities.
Among the newcomers is Sammie Louise Bates, a black retired factory worker who moved from Illinois in 2011 and was the trial's first witness. Bates recalls helping her grandmother count money decades ago to make sure they could cover the fee, known as a poll tax, which at the time was required to cast a ballot.
She said her monthly income mostly amounted to $321 in Social Security and that she cast a provisional ballot in November because she didn't have an accepted form of Texas ID. She said she couldn't submit proper documentation in time to make her provisional vote count. Among the biggest obstacles was the cost of getting a copy of her Mississippi birth certificate.
"I had to put $42 where it would do the most good," Bates said. "We couldn't eat the birth certificate."