AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A major election year in Texas largely has overshadowed the trial to determine the fate of the state's tough new voter identification law, but U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi is presiding over a case to determine whether the measure safeguards ballot integrity or discriminates against minorities by imposing a mandate that suppresses turnout.
VOTER ID LAW
Before the law took effect last year, voters could cast ballots by presenting their county-issued voter registration card or a valid government-issued photo identification card. The law passed in 2011 requires voters to show one of seven kinds of photo ID in order to vote, with or without a voter registration card. The seven forms of identification include a Texas driver's license, U.S. passport, a state-issued ID card, a state-issued election certificate, a Texas concealed handgun license, a U.S. military ID or a citizenship certificate with a photograph issued by the federal government.
With the exception of the citizenship certificate, none of the forms of identification may be expired for more than 60 days.
The election judge is required to compare the name on the ID card to the voter registration card or the computerized voter roll maintained at the precinct. If the names are not a match, the election judge can declare them "substantially similar" if the difference is slight (Wendy Davis vs Wendy Russell Davis), a customary variation (Gregory Abbott vs Greg Abbott) or if the name is the same but filled out in a different order (Mary Jones vs Mary Jones Smith).
The election judge also will verify the voter's address before providing a ballot.
Failure to produce a recognized ID card or a rejection of an ID card does not mean an individual may not vote. The voter may still cast a ballot, but it will be considered provisional until the voter can obtain an ID and present it to the county voting office within six days. If the voter doesn't meet the deadline, the ballot is not counted.
Supporters of the law say the Voter ID requirement guarantees the integrity of elections by making sure the voter is who they say they are. They point out that people cannot cash a check or rent a DVD without proper identification and voting should be held to the same standard.
Opponents point out that voter fraud isn't a serious problem in Texas and that poor, elderly or minority voters are more likely not to possess an approved form of ID. They accuse the state's Republican leadership of passing the law to discourage groups who generally vote Democratic from casting ballots.
The Justice Department, Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and other voting rights groups joined a federal lawsuit attempting to overturn the law, while Attorney General Greg Abbott, the favorite to win the governor's race in November, has sought to dismiss the lawsuit — even though his office, not Abbott personally, is arguing the matter. Opening statements from both sides began Tuesday before Gonzales Ramos, and the trial is expected to last two weeks. The judge could issue a ruling from the bench in time to affect the November election, but attorneys say that's unlikely — meaning that 13.6 million registered voters in Texas would still be required to produce a photo ID next Election Day.