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On Voter ID, Is It Time to Leave Texas Alone? Trump's DOJ Thinks So.

After long fighting Texas' voter ID law for discriminating against Latino and African American voters, the U.S. Department of Justice declared the latest revision of the controversial state law now satisfies President Donald Trump's administration, according a filing in federal court Wednesday.

By Andrea Zelinski

After long fighting Texas' voter ID law for discriminating against Latino and African American voters, the U.S. Department of Justice declared the latest revision of the controversial state law now satisfies President Donald Trump's administration, according a filing in federal court Wednesday.

The about-face from the DOJ comes after federal officials focused their attention on voter fraud last week by demanding state governments hand over their voter rolls to a federal commission on a quest to examine the president's claim that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election.

The DOJ proposed that Texas' legislative voter ID law revision signed into law this year "eradicates any discriminatory effect or intent" and "leaves no ongoing violation of federal law for the United States to pursue or the Court to remedy," according to the department's filing with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi.

Critics of the law and the administration disagree. They say Texas' track record of having four court rulings in five years find that the state has discriminated against black and Latino voters should justify continued judicial oversight despite the administration's change of heart.

"What we've seen is Texas cannot be trusted to protect every Texan's right to vote," said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director for the Texas Democratic Party, citing a history of what he called "state-sponsored discrimination" amid court rulings that found the Republican-led Legislature worked to minimize the impact of ethnic minorities via photo voter ID laws in drawing district lines.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, who twice ruled Texas' voter ID law intentionally discriminates against minority voters, will decide whether Texas' revised law meets all the court's remedies and whether to require the state ask permission to change voter ID laws in the future.

Texas' photo voter ID law, passed in 2011, requires most voters to present one of seven acceptable forms of photo identification at the polls to preserve integrity at the ballot box. The law was quickly snarled up in the courts and became known as one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country.

The court forced the state to water down the law by allowing voters without a valid photo identification to vote after completing an affidavit in the 2016 election. Confusion over what rules to follow delayed hundreds of people from voting and caused others to walk away, according to a report released last month from the Texas Civil Rights project.

Gov. Greg Abbott eventually made edits to the state's voter ID law in an emergency order during this year's legislative session, spurring lawmakers into hours-long running debates about photo voter IDs, discrimination and intent.

Under the new version of the law, called Senate Bill 5, voters without a photo identification will be able to cast their ballots if they show some other documentation with their name and home address, such as a bank statement or utility bill. They also must sign an affidavit swearing to their identify and attesting to having a "reasonable impediment" to obtaining a valid photo ID. Voters could face a two-year jail sentence if they are found to have provided false information.

The DOJ wrote in the court filing that the Texas Legislature's adoption of Senate Bill 5 this spring satisfactorily refined the state's voter ID law and satisfies the department.

The Justice Department under former President Barack Obama had fought against the state in voter ID court cases, joining minority groups that filed suit against the state. Under the Trump administration, the DOJ backed off its previous argument that Texas passed the voter ID law to purposefully discriminate.

Attorney General Ken Paxton's office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Legislature largely improved the state's voter ID law this year, critics said, but it comes with new issues that can disenfranchise voters.

"While the new law codifies much of the court's 2016 order relaxing the 2011 law, it also adds a new criminal penalty for providing false information on the reasonable impediment form. We are very concerned that this law will have the effect of intimidating folks who truly have a reasonable impediment to obtaining a photo ID and ultimately prevent them from casting a vote," said Beth Stevens, voting rights director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The legal filing came days after Trump asked states to hand over voter registration data. Texas agreed to share much of its data with the administration -- such as names, addresses, birth dates and voting histories -- but has declined to release information such as partial Social Security numbers.

(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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