Determined to stop a potential wave of states from pursuing measures that suppress voting rights, the Justice Department sued Texas on Thursday over the state's voter ID law and will seek to intervene in a lawsuit over its redistricting laws that minority groups complain are discriminatory.
Texas Republicans, however, insist these laws are designed to protect the state's elections from fraud.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the action marks another step in the effort to protect voting rights of all eligible Americans. He said the government will not allow a recent Supreme Court decision to be interpreted as a precedence for states to suppress voting rights.
"This represents the department's latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last," the attorney general said.
Holder is concentrating on Texas because of years of litigation over the state's voter ID law and redistricting maps that federal judges in Washington have determined would either indirectly disenfranchise minorities and the poor, or intentionally discriminate minorities.
In the voter ID lawsuit, the U.S. government will contend that Texas adopted a voter identification law with the purpose of denying or restricting voters' rights based on race, color or membership in a language minority group. The law requires voters to produce a state-issued ID before casting a ballot, while before voters could use their registration cards.
Texas is the only state found to have intentionally discriminated against minorities in this decade's round of redistricting, and the state was banned from enforcing either law. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring revisions to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took away the judges' authority to intervene.
That has forced Holder and minority groups to use other aspects of the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution to fight the cases in other federal courts.
Gov. Rick Perry called Holder's move a blatant disregard for states' 10th Amendment rights and has said the Obama administration's actions are an "end run around the Supreme Court."
"The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama," he added.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, a proponent of the voter ID law and currently a candidate to replace Perry, vowed to fight the Justice Department.
"Eric Holder is wrong to mess with Texas," he said. "By intervening in the redistricting case, the Obama DOJ is predictably joining with Democrat state legislators and Members of Congress and the Texas Democratic Party, who are already suing the state."
But state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus that is a plaintiff in the redistricting case, said federal intervention was necessary to protect minority rights.
"Federal courts have ruled time and again that government officials in Texas are systematically making it harder for minorities to vote," he said in a statement. "I am confident that the overwhelming evidence demonstrating intentional discrimination in Texas, when presented in court, will compel state officials to remove barriers to voting that will disenfranchise far too many of our citizens."
Intervening in the redistricting case would enable the federal government to seek a declaration that Texas's 2011 redistricting plans for the U.S. Congress and the Texas State House of Representatives were adopted to deny or restrict the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
Since a federal court found that Texas intentionally discriminated against minorities with its 2011 redistricting plans and voter identification law, state lawmakers have withdrawn their original maps and replaced them with a plan adopted by a federal court as a stop-gap measure. But Abbott has said the voter ID law is in effect.
The separate provision of the Voting Rights Act that Holder is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use. A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to advance approval of election changes through this provision, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the 14th or 15th amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of a law is not enough to trigger the provision.
The NAACP, one of the plaintiffs in the redistricting case, said it will intervene in the voter ID case in support of the Justice Department.
"Texas has a deeply disturbing history of brazenly suppressing the votes and voting strength of Black and Latino voters," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "A Texas voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than to see someone attempt to vote fraudulently at the polls."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.