By Drew Singer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A law requiring Texas voters to present photo identification at the polls is needed to combat a culture of election fraud plaguing the state, lawyers representing Texas argued in a landmark federal court case on Monday.
Lawyers representing the state of Texas began their weeklong defense of the 2011 voter ID law in the first case challenging the federal government's power to block such a law since the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama took office.
Texas hopes the case will eventually lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 amid civil rights protests to protect minority voters, has outlived its usefulness.
The federal government was able to block the Texas law from taking effect under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a rule that applies only to certain states with a particularly heavy history of racial suppression, such as Texas.
Texas' lawyers told a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the law does not harm minority voters, contrary to assertions by the U.S. Justice Department.
Texas is one of a number of states, nearly all of them run by Republicans, which have passed photo ID laws in recent years. The Supreme Court agreed with a similar Indiana law in 2009 but narrowly tailored its judgment to delay ruling on whether the entire law is constitutional.
A federal government list of nearly two million Texans who do not have the proper ID to vote under the new law is flawed, Adam Mortara, a lawyer for Texas, told the court. Mortara's first witness was Texas Director of Elections Keith Ingram, who despite having a driver's license, appears on the list of ineligible voters twice.
Supporters of the Texas law, say it will combat a wave of voting fraud that is tough to document but is making a very real impact in the state.
The Justice Department contends that evidence of voter fraud is purely anecdotal and that the state actually passed the law to make it more difficult for minorities, most of whom favor for Democrats, to vote.
"SOLUTION LOOKING FOR A PROBLEM"
Texas' law "was a solution looking for a problem," said Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer opposing Texas in the case.
Elections for local office are more vulnerable to voter fraud due to small victory margins and the close relationship candidates often share with voters, lawyers for Texas said. They pointed to local elections so close that they were resolved by a coin toss.
In Bee County, near Corpus Christi, there are 19,000 missing voter registration cards - the only document necessary to cast a vote under current law, Ingram said. Texas will soon investigate 239 cases of dead people casting votes in the 2010 election.
"At least in my county, the people were clamoring for someone to do something," state Representative Jose Aliseda, a Republican who represents Bee County, told the court.
He said people in the southern part of the state known as "politiqueros" visit the elderly and pressure them to vote for certain candidates. "They're vote harvesters," he said.
Federal government lawyers are expected argue that those who do not already have the proper photo ID, such as a passport or driver's license, will face complications acquiring one.
Thirty states have laws requiring voters to show at least some type of identification to vote in November, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
In addition to Texas, several states run by Republicans have enacted voter photo ID laws since the start of 2011 including Wisconsin, Kansas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. The U.S. Justice Department also has blocked the South Carolina law, citing discrimination against minorities, and a state judge has put the Wisconsin law on hold.
The Texas lawsuit for approval of the voter identification law is: State of Texas v. Holder in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 12-cv-128. The judicial panel is composed of Appeals Judge David Tatel, District Judge Robert Wilkins and District Judge Rosemary Collyer.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan)