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Justice Department Says Texas Is Misleading Voters In ID Law Re-Education

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Texas has begun to re-educate voters about what they'll need when they go to the polls this November. The state lost a lengthy legal battle over its voter ID law and had to change its rules. But now the U.S. Department of Justice says the state is misleading voters about what those new rules are. Ashley Lopez with member station KUT in Austin reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: The legal battle over the Texas voter ID law is a fight that just won't end. The law was passed by the state's Republican-led legislature in 2011. It immediately became one of the strictest photo ID laws in the country, and the law has been in and out of courts ever since.

CHAD DUNN: The courts have ruled that the law is discriminatory in its effects and that there's some considerable evidence that it was adopted with the purpose to prevent certain voters from voting.

LOPEZ: That's civil rights attorney Chad Dunn. He says judges ruled the Texas law made it harder for minorities to vote. That's why the state was forced to change the law before the presidential election. As a result, voters without one of the seven photo IDs required by the state now have some wiggle room. They can present alternative forms of ID, like a voter registration card. And Dunn says they just have to sign a document saying they had trouble getting a Texas photo ID.

DUNN: And if they have an impediment to getting an ID, a reasonable impediment to getting an ID, they shouldn't fear at all coming into a polling location and filling out a declaration and casting that full ballot they're entitled to.

LOPEZ: A federal judge ordered the state to communicate these changes to voters. And that's where things have hit a snag. The state is accused of using language that doesn't stress that people without a photo ID can now vote. Here's Cinde Weatherby with a local chapter of the League of Women Voters reading from the state's website.

CINDE WEATHERBY: (Reading) Voters who cannot obtain one of the seven forms of approved photo ID have additional options at the polls.

LOPEZ: Compare that to how Weatherby is phrasing this in her voter handouts. She says if voters simply don't have an ID, they'll be able to vote. And when asked what the big difference here is, she says it's perspective.

WEATHERBY: We're trying to look at it from a positive rather than a negative. I guess that's the basic answer.

LOPEZ: The U.S. Justice Department and the plaintiffs in the case say it's more than just tone that's a problem here. There are a lot more voters who have trouble getting an ID than voters who can't get one at all. Ezra Rosenberg, another attorney representing the Texas voters challenging the state's law, says this could have ramifications come November.

EZRA ROSENBERG: If people have inaccurate information as to whether they're allowed to vote, they may decide not to vote. That's why we want to clear this up.

LOPEZ: Texas election officials aren't commenting on this. There's a hearing set for later this month. While the court figures all this out, groups are frantically trying to spread the word before the state's voter registration deadline on October 11. Texas has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. In 2012, less than 50 percent of eligible voters in Texas went to the polls, well below the national average. Cinde Weatherby says that's why voting rights advocates are working hard to let people know the law is different now.

WEATHERBY: A lot of people felt like they weren't welcome at the polls if they didn't have one of these ways to vote. Even those people who really tried hard to get one of those photo IDs just were eliminated from the voting pool.

LOPEZ: State election officials say they plan on unveiling an ad campaign to tell voters what they will need at the polls, but that campaign won't start until October. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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