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Voting laws spark legal action

New voter identification requirements are sowing legal challenges not just in North Carolina, but beyond its borders — with Texas bracing to become a fresh legal battleground.

As early voting launched last week, the state is becoming a testing ground for voter ID laws, which have cropped up nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation in June of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Thirty-four states have enacted voter ID laws, though the legislation has yet to take effect in many of them. Critics have said the laws curb access to the polls for young, elderly, women and minority voters, while supporters cite the need to address voter fraud.

In the last two months, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced it will sue both North Carolina and Texas, asserting the states’ voting laws violate the Voting Rights Act — and other groups are rallying to follow with legal action.

The Texas law lists seven acceptable forms of photo ID, including Texas driver’s licenses, U.S. passports and concealed handgun licenses. Neither Texas nor North Carolina, whose ID requirement goes into effect in 2016, allows college IDs.

A new ID is hard to get in Texas, said Linda Krefting, president of the nonpartisan Texas League of Women Voters, though the state is working to boost voting access. One-fifth of Texas counties lack a Department of Public Safety, which issues driver’s licenses and free voting cards accepted at the polls, though the department’s mobile unit travels to rural locations.

Still, some out-of-state college students will need to take extra steps to vote in Texas, Krefting said.

“For students in Texas who don’t have a Texas driver’s license and don’t have a passport, they’re going to have to get a Texas ID,” she said.

This type of voter ID law strikes a harsh blow to women voters, said Allison Riggs, an attorney for the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice — one of the civil rights groups involved in Texas voting litigation.

Women who have changed their name due to marriage or divorce could face hurdles at the polls, Riggs said.

“A state court judge, a female judge, had difficulty voting because of a name change,” she said. “This is someone who’s very highly educated and privileged and still running across those problems.”

But if women’s names have changed, they can sign an affidavit affirming their identity, Krefting said.

“When you sign in to vote, you initial a box — that’s all it takes,” she said.

No one has had to use a provisional ballot because of a name change, said Alicia Pierce, spokeswoman for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which spearheads elections. She said turnout so far dwarfs that of similar elections in 2009 and 2011.

“So far we’re seeing a record turnout,” Pierce said.

Totals tallied on Oct. 24 revealed that nearly 95,000 Texans have voted early so far in Texas’ 15 most populous counties, more than double the 45,379 who voted in a similar election in 2011.

In North Carolina, the legal issues with new voting requirements are similar, but could include state constitutional issues that haven’t been identified in Texas, Riggs said. And N.C. litigation covers broader ground — challengers of the law also decry components that trim early voting and cut same-day registration, options frequently used by black voters.

Before the Supreme Court decision, states with a history of voter discrimination needed federal approval to change their voting laws. Without that requirement, it’s harder and more costly to stem the tide of strict voting requirements, said Vishal Agraharkar, an attorney at New York University’s nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, a group involved in Texas voting litigation.

“It’s hard to block laws before they have the chance to harm voters,” he said.

The Department of Justice lawsuits in both states, if successful, would subject the states to federal pre-approval for their voting law changes.

Krefting said Texas’ voter ID law was denied federal approval after its 2011 passage, on the grounds that it discriminated against Latino voters.

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Though murky details have caused some confusion, she said the law should not concern Texas voters.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of at the polls.”