With polls showing President Obama and Mitt Romney locked in a desperately close race for the presidency, will voter identification laws suppress the Democratic vote and cost Obama the election, or will they simply cut down on voter fraud as Republicans contend?
What effect, if any, will the court challenges to state voter ID laws have on the laws' impact, given the short window before the November balloting. What will the U.S. Supreme Court do and how quickly? By law the high court has to hear the appeals of the challenges.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder laid down the gauntlet for the administration in his speech to the NAACP annual convention in Houston July 10.
"As many of you know, yesterday was the first day of trial in a case that the state of Texas filed against the Justice Department, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, seeking approval of its proposed voter ID law. After close review, the department found that this law would be harmful to minority voters -- and we rejected its implementation.
"Under the proposed law, concealed handgun licenses would be acceptable forms of photo ID -- but student IDs would not," Holder said. "Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them -- and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them."
Holder said some recent studies show only 8 percent of white voting age citizens nationally lack a government-issued ID, while 25 percent of African-American voting age citizens lack one.
"But let me be clear: We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right," Holder said.
The Texas challenge trial ended in a Washington courtroom earlier this month. Under the Voting Rights Act, the Lone Star State and and 15 other states, mostly in the South, must receive approval from the U.S. attorney general or a Washington federal court for changes in voting procedures because of past discrimination.
The three-judge panel in the Washington court is expected to rule next month -- early enough for Texas to implement the law for the November election should the state win its case, The Houston Chronicle reported. But any verdict by the panel would probably be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could issue a stay with the votes of five of the nine justices.
Given the skepticism expressed by the Washington judges -- challengers said some voters, particularly Hispanic, would have to travel 100 miles to get their government-issued IDs, even if they're free -- Texas' chances in the Washington court aren't good. But given the five-justice conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, the state's chances before the high court are somewhat better.
The Supreme Court could combine the Texas case with another involving a South Carolina law similar to the Texas photo ID law, which is scheduled to be heard before a three-judge court in Washington next month. Or the justices could put the South Carolina case on hold until the Texas case is decided.
Across the country, 11 states have enacted voter ID laws driven by Republican-led initiatives, and 20 or so others are considering them.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Times this month, like Holder, scoffs at Republican claims the laws are designed to prevent voter fraud.
"Twelve years after disputes about hanging chads and butterfly ballots [in Bush vs. Gore] cast doubt on the credibility of the outcome of a presidential election," the editorial said, "the integrity of the election process again has become a partisan issue. If the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is a close one, look for the losing side to blame the outcome on either fraud or voter suppression. At this point the latter looks to be the bigger problem."
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