Texas agreed Wednesday to weaken its voter ID law as courts across the U.S., with only months before the November election, are blocking Republican-controlled states from imposing polling place restrictions that critics say target minorities and the poor.
The changes must still be approved by a federal judge. But the looser rules have the important blessing of the U.S. Justice Department and minority rights groups, who sued over the 2011 law and said that 600,000 voters would otherwise lack a suitable ID to cast a ballot this fall.
Those voters would now be allowed to sign an affidavit to cast a regular full ballot, and their vote would be counted. Texas must also spend at least $2.5 million on voter outreach before November, according to the joint proposal that Texas and opponents of the law submitted to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos.
"The provisions we've agreed to now are critical safeguards for voters," said Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who is one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit against Texas. "It's a critical leap forward."
A spokesman for Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Texas worked fast to soften the law before election day after a federal appeals court last month ruled that the tough ID restrictions — which accepted concealed handgun permits at polling places, but not college student IDs — violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
That was followed by courts Friday dealing setbacks to Republican efforts in three other states to restrict voting: blocking a North Carolina law requiring photo identification, loosening a similar measure in Wisconsin and halting strict citizenship requirements in Kansas.
North Dakota's voter identification requirements are also on hold after a federal judge Monday sided with a group of Native Americans who said the law unfairly burdens them.
More than 30 states have some form of voter ID rules. But the Obama administration in recent years joined the fight on a new breed of voter ID laws passed in Republican-controlled statehouses, sending the Justice Department to join lawsuits in Texas and North Carolina.