Updated March 12, 2012, 7:31 p.m. ET
HOUSTON—The U.S. Justice Department on Monday blocked Texas from enforcing a law that requires voters to show state-issued photo identification at the polls, saying it would disproportionately affect Hispanics.
The agency's move is likely to fan the flames around the issue nationally, as state legislatures consider toughening voter-ID laws in an election year. Republicans argue that requiring voters to show IDs will help combat fraud; Democrats claim the measures are designed to make it harder to vote for minorities, the elderly and other groups who tend to back Democrats.
Texas is one many jurisdictions, mostly in the South, required to get permission from the Justice Department or judges in the District of Columbia federal court before making changes to voting laws. This requirement applies to states that were found by the U.S. to have restricted the opportunity to vote.
Bring Your ID
The Justice Department said that Hispanics registered to vote in Texas are considerably less likely to have drivers licenses or state-issued IDs than other voters, citing data supplied by Texas in its bid to win clearance for the law passed last May. Under the Voting Rights Act, states must prove that voting legislation does not make it harder for racial or ethnic minorities to vote.
"I cannot conclude that the state has sustained its burden," wrote Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general, in a letter to Texas's director of elections on Monday. He added, "The state has failed to demonstrate why it could not meet its stated goals of ensuring electoral integrity and deterring ineligible voters from voting" without the new law.
Also Monday, a county judge in Wisconsin blocked part of a voter-ID law passed last year, ruling the Wisconsin legislature and GOP Gov. Scott Walker "exceeded their constitutional authority" by requiring citizens to show a photo ID to vote.
In the ruling, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess agreed with a local voter group that the law violated the state Constitution by disenfranchising citizens without a photo ID. Judge Niess also questioned the effort to prevent voter fraud with voter-ID laws. Voter "fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression," he wrote. "Indeed, they are two heads on the same monster."
Another Wisconsin judge last week temporarily suspended the law until a hearing next month. The law, which drew four lawsuits, is now blocked pending a successful appeal of Judge Niess's ruling. Wisconsin holds local elections and the Republican presidential primary on April 3.
Mr. Walker's office said, "Requiring photo identification to vote is common sense—we require it to get a library card, cold medicine and public assistance.… We are confident the state will prevail in its plan to implement photo ID."
The Texas decision marks the second time in recent months the Justice Department has blocked a state from requiring voters to show a state-issued photo ID. In December, it objected that such a law in South Carolina would disproportionately affect minority voters. The state has sued the agency in federal court in Washington to get judicial approval of its law.
Texas, anticipating the agency's rejection, also sued, arguing its law should be approved because of similar laws in effect in other states. State Attorney General Greg Abbott said Texas "should not be treated differently and must have the same authority as other states to protect the integrity of our elections."
The spat is likely to ripple across the nation: Voter-ID legislation is pending in 32 state legislatures, and 10 of them are considering proposals to tighten requirements, said the National Council of State Legislatures.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in recent speeches and congressional testimony, has said instances of voter fraud are rare, and that he views voter-ID laws as a "solution in search of a problem."
In a speech last month at Tulane University, Mr. Holder said that while voter fraud wouldn't be tolerated by the Justice Department, "new state rules requiring photo identification to cast a vote too often appear to make a mockery of the promise of real participation in our electoral system."