By Drew Singer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A 2011 Texas law requiring voters to show photo identification will lead to fewer African-Americans voting and reflects a state still rife with racism, a civil rights activist testified during the third day of a federal trial on Wednesday.
"The brutality and ugliness of racism exists from the governor's office down to the mainstream of Texas," the Reverend Peter Johnson, who has worked for decades to help black Americans gain access to the polls and who lives in Texas, told the court.
"It's dishonest and naive to deny this," he added.
The trial over the Texas law is the first challenge to the federal government's power to block such a voter ID law since Democratic President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will not allow the law to take effect if it finds the state hoped the law would harm minority voters.
Texas lawyers argued the law would prevent fraud and said requiring photo IDs at the polls would not dissuade minority voters any more than other voters.
Supporters of the law hope the case will eventually lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 during civil rights protests to protect minority voters, has outlived its usefulness.
The federal government in March blocked the law from taking effect, using Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a rule that applies only to certain states with a particularly heavy history of racial suppression. Texas is asking the court to overturn that move. The trial is expected to continue through Friday and a decision is expected by late summer.
Under the blocked Texas measure, voters would be required to show photo identification such as a driver's license or passport. Existing Texas law mandates that voters show a voter registration card - which does not have a photo - or an acceptable alternative, such as a driver's license or a utility bill.
Obtaining a photo ID can be difficult, particularly for minorities, federal lawyers said, because of the time and occasional costs necessary.
Daron Shaw, a University of Texas government professor, showed the court evidence from other states with voter ID laws suggesting very few voters were deterred because of requirements similar to the law passed in Texas last year.
"I think the weight of the evidence is that it will not have an effect on turnout," Shaw said.
CHALLENGING FEDERAL POWER
Henry Flores, a political science professor and dean of the graduate school at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, said the state law came in response to dramatic demographic changes over the past 40 years. Flores identified roughly 100 pieces of Texas legislation that he said suggested a legislative bias against a growing population of Hispanic immigrants.
"It seemed to me that (the ID law) had been turned into an anti-immigration bill," he told the court. "Race was at the heart of the whole thing."
Seventeen states have passed some version of a law requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls. The Justice Department has also blocked a South Carolina law, citing the Voting Rights Act, but the challenge has yet to reach the courts.
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 and Peter Cooney)